By David Glenn Cox
My mother grew up in an inner-city Irish ghetto in Chicago, during the Great Depression. She said she could go six blocks in any direction and get beaten up by a different ethnic group. She said that while growing up, she rarely heard anyone called Irish, without the word dirty in front of it. She then explained that I go to school with those people’s children now and we all get along fine.
That racism was visited upon me in the form of moving furniture, washing windows, and taking down drapes on sunny summer Saturdays. When I should have been out playing with my new “ethnic” friends. A little girl who grows up being called dirty, becomes near phobic about being clean.
I was just a kid of six or seven when Martin Luther King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial. The story came on the old 25-inch radiation king TV. In my naivete, I asked my mother what was going on. She explained that some White People didn’t like Black people because of the color of their skin. It seemed pretty straight forward to understand. But then she added that the same people who don’t like them, don’t like you either. That cleared things up pretty good as far as I was concerned. Irish Catholics weren’t allowed in the Klan or the Country Club. Up until recently, they hadn’t been allowed in the White House either!
But at that time racism and prejudice were just a definition for me and not an experience. Not long after that we moved to Dallas, Texas. Just in time for JFK’s assassination, but I have a solid alibi. Being new in the neighborhood in summer and not knowing anyone in those pre-Internet days. Three TV stations and the AM radio was the entire electronic universe, unless you wanted to play with the can opener.
Just then, my sister burst in with great news. She’d met the little girl in the house behind us, and they were going swimming at the YMCA. And we were invited to come along! I was to grab a towel and put on my suit immediately. But when we got there, their car was gone. The little girl had asked my (Big Mouthed) sister what church we attended and when the little girl told her mother, they retracted their invitation.
That is my traumatic story of growing up with discrimination in the sixties. “They Left Without Me!” Soon to made into a full-length, action-packed dramatic story of our times. Starring, Johnny Depp as young Dave. One day, one time. Children don’t understand prejudice, but they do understand fairness. If everyone gets two, why do I only get one? Why would it matter what church we attended?
My not Irish Grandfather was also not British, he was Welsh. He is also my family hero and was arrested by the police many, many times. The police were so fond of my grandfather, that they once awarded him a four-inch scar on his forehead with a night stick. Just to remind him of their affection. But his first arrest is my personal favorite, and holds a special place in my heart. My father was an eyewitness and sprinted home to tell. “Mama, Mama, guess what? Daddy is going to be busy tonight!”
This was the late 1920s in Springfield, Ohio. The Ku Klux Klan was at their zenith and were having a little parade downtown. My father and Grandfather stood silently on the curb waiting for them to pass. When one of the Klansman spotted my grandfather. The Klansman grabbed him by his lapel pulling him out into the street and said, “Cox! Join us!”
My grandfather decked him, ruining his white robe with blood stains that would probably never come out. My Grandfather was arrested for inciting a riot. And as you can probably imagine, some of his Klan buddies were not very happy. Arrest was probably the best result possible, as it was just my grandfather vs. several dozen Klansmen.
Some of his other arrests were for resisting assault, and criminal intent to suffer bodily injury while on a picket line. He said the cops always picked him out because he was tall, which made him more noticeable and loud, which made him intolerable. He wasn’t Black nor was he a Catholic, but what does that have to do with it? My Grandfather was content to allow them their right to parade, but when they put their hands on him, peace was at an end. His mother was a German Catholic, and if you think you can get a boy to join a hate group that hates his own mother. You’re probably going to get your ass kicked.
So last night, I went out to have a couple of beers at the local bowling alley. To celebrate Alabama’s crushing defeat over Ole Miss and because I work at home and live alone. Sometimes, only the sound thrashed bowling pins, and draft beer keeps me sane. I sat at the bar, and the waitress asked my pleasure. I drank my beer and then drank two more.
A young Black couple entered the bar and sat down next to me. They ordered two beers and the bartender immediately asked them for cash up front. This was nice young couple. This wasn’t Bootsy Collins or George Clinton. They weren’t wearing bandanas or covered in bling, they were dressed like schoolteachers. The White waitress asked them for cash up front. I’d been sitting there for two hours, and she never even asked me my name.
It takes a lot to piss me off. Especially after Alabama has bludgeoned another hapless victim into football submission. I told the waitress that wanted to close. Then I told the Black lady just what had transpired. I get to cussing at things like this and put their next round on my tab, the lady thanked me for telling her. She told me I didn’t have to buy them a round. I told her, to think nothing of it. The money was coming from the waitress’s tip.
One of my favorite Woody Guthrie stories is “Woody Does the War Bond Dinner!” or “Woody’s Last Appearance at a War Bond Dinner! The dinner was being held in Baltimore, and Woody performed with Brownie McGhee on guitar and Sonny Terry on harmonica. After their performance, Woody was seated at the main banquet table.
Being Black in segregated Baltimore, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were offered plates of food in the kitchen and Woody objected. (Of course, he did. You had to know THAT was gonna happen.) It was explained to Mr. Guthrie that this was Baltimore, a southern city and that’s just the way things were done. Woody calmly returned to his seat at the banquet table and then announced, “If we’re going to fight Fascism… let’s start right here!” Flipping the banquet table over and ruining the dinner, but winning the war!