God’s Rifle

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I am a Southerner and a devotee of that lifestyle celebrated in the pages of glossy magazines. The delicacies of the South — the language, food, finery, and manners — interlace with the earthier elements of the hunt, bourbon, and humor: a tapestry one may explore for a lifetime and not exhaust. These present gifts are readily subsumed in a vision of the antebellum time, and one cannot help but mourn the passing of the society and culture that created them for us.

I grew up in Memphis, atop the Mississippi Delta and all the wealth that yards and yards of rich topsoil can produce. I came early to the conclusion that every man should have a shotgun, a tuxedo, a set of golf clubs, and the attendant know-how. In elementary school, we wore pixie-like costumes in the Cotton Carnival parade and waited for the arrival of the king and queen on their barge, accompanied by princesses and duchesses of the realm. In middle grades, we wore coats and ties to the Children's Ball in E.H. Crump Stadium and danced, as our mothers instructed and required, until we could run under the bleachers to fight and spit. In college, we escorted a princess for the week-long party and knew that someday we would marry a duchess-to-be.

Our schools, churches, and clubs formed the scaffolding for our lives, and we all knew each other. High school fraternities and sororities were robust, and one or another would sponsor a weekly party, at which there was live music, abundant alcohol, and inattentive chaperones. The Memphis police looked the other way, and the few unlucky enough to be pulled over were usually admonished to "be careful."

There were ball fields, gymnasiums, tennis courts, and golf courses everywhere. Even for those with private clubs or pools at home, the public swimming pools were a great draw for deflecting the brutal Memphis summer, meeting friends, and spotting the occasional celebrity.

ALEKSANDER KOVALTCHUK | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Aleksander Kovaltchuk | Dreamstime.com

There were a few private schools, but the public system had a long list of graduates who had gone to the Ivy League. We roamed each other's campuses at will, riding bikes or city buses when too young to drive, taking a carload of friends along when we got our keys. We also roamed the city, from East Memphis to Main Street and the riverfront, no matter the hour or day. We'd park in a dim side street and walk 'round to the dazzling marquees of the Malco Theater or Loew's Palace for a Saturday night movie date. We stopped at Tropical Freeze, Dairy Queen, or Pig and Whistle afterward and invariably found our pals.

We loved our lives so much we didn't even think about it. We did not often mention but knew full well that our good fortune descended directly from those who had wrought the grand South from the wilderness and bequeathed it to us. We mourned their tragic disenfranchisement by "The War."

Aware of our heritage in so many ways, we were blind to the one great parallel. The grandeur of the Old South was founded upon the systematic oppression and commercial exploitation of African Americans. While slavery was not even a remote memory for me or my family, every facility and every privilege I enjoyed was a creature of racial segregation. Schools, churches, tennis courts: All were reserved for one race or the other, and those for blacks were distinctly inferior to those for whites.

"White" and "Colored" were the de facto and de jure categorizations for Memphians. "Latino" and "Asian" didn't even come to mind. In Goldsmith's department store, there were signs over adjacent water fountains: "White" and "Colored." Blacks were allowed into the Malco only through an obscure side-street entrance that led directly to the balcony. The glitter of the main entrance and the plush seating therein were for me and people like me.

Tuesday was "Colored Day" at the Memphis Zoo and, though never present on the same days, the restrooms were designated as "White" or "Colored." Dairy Queen had several front windows at which whites could place their orders. Blacks waited in line at a single window off to the side, by the dumpster.

Brown v. Board of Education may have been decided in 1954, but I still graduated from an all-white high school in 1966.

Integration had been initiated, though, and the prospect of white and colored kids dancing in the same room to the same music prompted the Memphis Board of Education to prohibit proms. The mandate that municipal swimming pools be accessible to all was parried by the city fathers' closing of them rather than have mixed races share chlorinated water. I stood within 10 feet as the elders of my church denied entrance to black worshippers.

Although some scholars disagree, Abraham Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address that the cause of "The War" was slavery. He quoted Matthew: "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." He posited "The War" as the woe for the offense of slavery and offered prayer and hope that it would pass swiftly. He warned, however, that it might not pass until "all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword ...."

The tribulations suffered by the South during and after "The War" were of Old Testament dimensions and duration. After Reconstruction, most felt that surely sufficient price and penitence had been paid. But the offenses had not ceased; they were transmogrified into those that gave me front-row seats, new textbooks, and well-groomed baseball diamonds.

The woe has been similarly transformed from that of war and dislocation to that of racial antagonism and mistrust. Sharp operators of every hue have leveraged the antagonism and mistrust to personal advantage. Having ruled autocratically, many whites abandoned their cities and left the emerging black majorities without benevolent governance paradigms.

A member of the Memphis diaspora, I look back and see her indicted public officials, her surrendered public school charter, her crime and poverty rates, and the handful of servants struggling against the racial riptide. Memphis is not the only victim, just the one best known and dearest to me. Racial tension pervades our nation — even in those quarters where Jim Crow had no official presence — and international immigration has merely produced multilateral rather than bilateral tension.

The South's natural, geographical, historical, and cultural advantages are held beyond our grasp by the current woes, and other regions are handicapped as well. Lincoln called for "malice toward none ... charity for all." Perhaps we can forgo our suspicion and resentment and each forgive the other for offenses real and imagined. As James Taylor sings in "Belfast to Boston":

Who will swallow long injustice, take the devil for a country man ...

Missing brothers, martyred fellows, silent children in the ground,

Could we but hear them, would they not tell us,

Time to lay God's rifle down.

Maybe apologies all around would be a start. This has been mine.

Richard Patterson, who spent much of his life as a physician in Memphis, is now retired in South Carolina.

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