The First Time I Went South — I Mean Really South

SixteenthStBaptistBomb01Is this what revolution looks like – Grand Slams and coffee on Formica?

Growing up right on the Mason-Dixon Line of mixed Hoosier-Kentuckian-West Virginian stock, I could never get a handle on exactly whether I was a southerner. Louisville and Southern Indiana had strong unions and lots of Catholics (clearly Midwestern traits) but also generous use of the pronoun “you all” by pick-up truck driving GED holders whose workweeks ended with trips to their favorite fishin’ spots.
I did not venture into an unambiguously southern area until 1983 when, at age 25, I decided to spend a few leftover Christmas vacation days from my newspaper reporting job in Southern Indiana and travel to Atlanta.
Would it be the cosmopolitan, diverse “too busy to hate” city of its major-league image, or a provincial small town with tall buildings, as some critics regard it?
The trip shed little light on that question; the below-zero temperature was the second coldest ever recorded in Atlanta and even though there was no snow and the sky was cloudless blue, the place absolutely shut down. Nope, I’m not a southerner, I decided as I motored almost alone along the normally packed freeways, enjoying the easiest big-city driving I had ever experienced.
A Yankee gets great restaurant service, too, when he is the only one there, unless the weather “crisis” has prevented the wait staff from coming to work.
It warmed up to the normal Southern December high 40s just as I decided to amend my itinerary and head west on Interstate 20 to Birmingham.
Ah, the real south, in its meteorological element – and away from Atlanta’s glitz and economic verve. Birmingham, I figured, would be different.
The city too hateful in the early ‘60s to get busy and accept integration. The church bombings. Fire hoses on people peaceably assembling. Bull Connor. That was the Birmingham I knew from flashpoint news coverage and assigned civics class readings.
Once in the real place, I drove through an area called Red Mountain I had heard was lovely (yes, the homes and trees indeed were, but the police car that tailed me the whole time took the joy out of the tour), then stopped at a Denny’s. There, architectural mediocrity aside, the feeling was more uplifting.
Blacks and whites dined, with the dress of both varying from suits to work ware. An utterly ordinary scene, but that is what made me gaze in awe for a moment around the room.
For this display of everyday, nondescript familiarity to come about, it took children dying in bombings, peaceful demonstrators being gassed and beaten, followed by a long obstinate Congress finally passing the most sweeping domestic legislation in the nation’s history.
Twenty years later, racial Birmingham picthe fruits of this heroic struggle were that people of all colors can eat lunch oblivious to the racial justice angle of their joint presence as they chat about the weather, church and the upcoming football bowl games.
Is this what revolution looks like – Grand Slams and coffee on Formica?
As I learned much more over the next couple of decades about the issue of racial justice, I came to understand that the crucial matter anymore is whether the servers and dishwashers at restaurants such as Denny’s can make adequate and stable wages and afford health insurance — not who can be served.
Being able to ride on any part of the bus is a great and overdue boost to human dignity, but it becomes largely a symbolic victory if there is no adequate job to which to ride.
We have so far to go to achieve true equality, but recalling a winter afternoon in Birmingham assures me that if that city can go from homicidal carnage to casual mixed-race dining in 20 years, we can end hunger, war, and patriarchy.
And someday a visitor to Rwanda, Stonewall, Guatemala or Immokalee will contrast the history of suffering there with the present equality and nonviolence and marvel at what is gloriously mundane.

This is adapted from a column in Brian Arbenz’ book “Lost And Found in Louisville.” For purchase information, e-mail Brian at 


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