As the young voyageurs of La Salle: Expedition II entered the month of March 1977, they felt a sense of relief. Temperatures had risen above freezing, the Mississippi River finally ran free again, and the young men could now see an end to their long odyssey. As they paddled downstream, however, they discovered an old horror lurking in this new season. Not ten years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the racial divide in the South was still palpable.
In early February, while they were still in the Land of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, the crew got a taste of racism when they were greeted by a local reporter who said, “Welcome to Calhoun County, where the sun never sets on a n-----.” That night the crew’s audience, in a forum on progress in the county, made it clear they’d be better off without industry and racial minorities.
On Lincoln’s birthday – Feb. 12 – Keith Gorse and Sam Hess had backtracked to Utica to bring on the canoes that had been in storage during the long trek across Illinois. One of the UPS drivers hauling the canoes noticed Keith’s long hair and commented that the boys had better travel in groups and carry muskets after leaving the state, a nod to the intolerance the crew might find for those who seem different. It was merely a taste of things to come.
In Memphis, Tennessee, the Rotary Club gave a luncheon for the crew, which they certainly appreciated. As at most Rotary functions, the members said the Four-Way Test in unison: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? And then it took a hit from one Rotarian. The luncheon for the white membership was staffed that day by a largely black group of servers. The member told a voyageur that he could get anything he needed “by calling one of those shines” to get it. Later Bob Kulick wondered in his journal if the Rotarian had considered whether his derogatory name was “fair or beneficial” to those who were serving him.
In Helena, Arkansas the racial divide was on display in the schools the crew visited. Since Brown vs. Board of Education twenty years before, a certain element in town had seen fit to open, DeSoto, a private high school that could protect its white children from the necessity of associating with the town’s black children. One black man who chauffeured the voyageurs from place to place put on an “Uncle Tom” persona: “You means ah git tuh goes to da prahvaht school?” Then he got serious. “They won’t even let a dog in the front door, let alone me,” he said, indicating that he’d be treated like an animal. At DeSoto voyageurs heard a teacher call a black neighborhood a slum, speak disparagingly of the NAACP, and claim, with satisfaction, that open housing could not be enforced. Even so, some whites praised Central, the public school, whose faculty was not, as the boys had been told, eighty percent black. A car dealer whose wife was head of the school board, said the opening of the private school had made integration so much easier by taking out the racist troublemakers.
The crew encountered another form of discrimination while camped at Rosedale, Mississippi. Title IX, which guaranteed equal educational opportunity to women, had passed into law five years earlier. But the NCAA and other institutions continued to challenge its application to women’s collegiate sports. The women’s national college basketball championship was still contended by tiny colleges in the South. The crew rode a bus a few miles down the road to Cleveland, whose Delta State ladies and 6-foot-3 Olympic heroine Lucy Harris whipped the University of Alabama 87-57 in one semifinal en route to its fourth straight title. In the second game, Mississippi College nudged out Valdosta State.
Racism again bared its fangs in Natchez, where a black girl working at the Natchez Village confessed that she was afraid to go on the Pilgrimage Trail or to the Civic Center or even to help entertain the voyageurs that night. Traditionally black Southern University, however, held a racial mirror up to the voyageurs themselves. Several undergraduates of the school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana called attention to the fact that none of the voyageurs was black. Even after the men had returned home to the Chicago area, racism followed. Teacher Terry Cox came home discouraged one day after he had heard white students refer to their black counterparts as “spear chuckers,” and he wondered at how little different a northern big city was to a rural southern town.
Forty years after La Salle: Expedition II, America seems as divided as ever. We discriminate against those whose great sin lies in being different from us. We make the most negative associations we can about customs, skin color, intellect, disability, religion, height, weight, nationality, disease, athleticism, gender and gender choices. The list is inexhaustible, our intolerance boundless.
It’s bad enough when such hatred comes with a smirk or a prank. It becomes worse when it is excused as a means of protecting our values or our homeland. But the logical extreme of such attitudes is senseless slaughter at a gay nightclub or black church, bombing of a mosque, desecration of a Jewish cemetery, or a “bathroom” law designed to segregate and criminalize transgender children.
During America’s Bicentennial, honoring the truth that “all men (and women) are created equal,” the voyageurs witnessed a nation in transition. But the overt racial and sexual discrimination they saw was not eliminated. It was only driven underground. Today the fear of the different has been given political cover. We can discriminate indiscriminately. All we have to do is say we are doing so
to protect ourselves from rapists and murderers and drug dealers
or illegal immigrants trying to take our jobs
or the threat (??) of transsexuals in our bathrooms. rl/boy wannabes
or radical Islamic terrorism
as if there were no such thing as radical Christian terrorism alive and well in America.
We must all hope, like Lincoln, that we listen to the better angels of our nature and remember the soul of the old hymn: Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian (and American) love.