Racism—How Prevalent is It?
Copyright 2003 (all rights reserved)
By Rudy S. Apodaca
In this essay, I address
an extremely sensitive subject but one we shouldn’t shy away from—racism. It’s a kind of bigotry that’s been with us
since biblical times, and alas, I’d guess we won’t be rid of it during your
lifetime or mine.
I called racism a
“sensitive subject.” Why? Because whenever I’ve heard it discussed, I
could see and feel the discomfort and the uneasiness that always came over some
in the audience. To me, their very
edginess was a kind of denial that racism exists in our schools, churches,
government, and elsewhere. But even if
they acknowledged that racism permeated our society, the looks on some faces
told me they didn’t want to be reminded of it.
I apologize if my
comments make any of you feel this same uneasiness. I suppose I could have chosen something
lighter to write about instead of this, perhaps “unpleasant” topic. But if one can’t do it in a legal journal of
our multi-cultural state, then I suggest to you that we’re in big trouble
Last Fall, I was given
the opportunity to speak on this same subject at the annual banquet of the
NAACP’s Dona Ana County Branch in Las Cruces.
I was honored and privileged to have been asked to participate in that
event, which to me was symbolic of two important facets of a free society.
First is the freedom of
association and speech under our constitution.
The NAACP was born out of a principle that our citizens have a right to
speak out and to associate with one another politically and socially. Second is the imperative that, in order to
safeguard other sacred rights, we act collectively. In numbers, there is strength.
The NAACP’s courageous
founders had a vision. They saw the real
danger that the rights guaranteed under our constitution wouldn’t be realized
unless they acted. I shudder at the
thought of how far we would have advanced through the years, if the NAACP
The question occurred to
me last Fall whether I was preaching to the choir, so to speak. The same thought had crossed my mind when I
spoke at the Martin Luther King Breakfast at NMSU that same year. I asked the rhetorical question then—how
would Reverend King view our country today if he were to appear suddenly before
us some 30-plus years after his death. I
answered my own query by saying that, despite the advances we’ve made in race
relations through these years, he would be saddened that we still have such a
long way to go.
So why, the reader might
ask, did I speak on racism to groups dedicated to the principles of the
Reverend King? Because it was important
to remind ourselves that we should be vigilant in safeguarding the advances we’ve
made in this country and that we must continue in our quest. Many of us have already seen the regressive
changes that have come about through the highest court of our land. We’ve also seen and heard individuals of
powerful persuasion in this country who stand for goals that are contrary to
our own principles, all the while masking them hypocritically. There are even those who might consider this
piece divisive or that I’m being unnecessarily negative. I would disagree. I believe it’s important to continue asking
ourselves the same questions today that organizations such as the NAACP asked
in the past. Thus the title of this
Let’s move on now to the
heart of this subject. I’ll start by
going back to 1956, when I was a junior in high school and my world for the
most part consisted of Las Cruces and its smallness. That was also the year that the motion
picture, Giant, opened in movie theaters around the country. It shouldn’t surprise you that I was a fairly
naive, innocent young man back then who didn’t much relate to serious
historical matters. It was hard enough
dealing with school and day-to-day living without coming to grips with the
threat of racism. I hadn’t even read Edna
Ferber’s epic novel, on which the movie was based. Until then, to my knowledge, Hollywood had
for the most part shied away from movies depicting racism against
You may recall that the
hero, Bick Benedict, played by actor Rock Hudson, marries a Southern lady,
Elizabeth Taylor, and begins raising a family in his big, sprawling ranch in
West Texas. Even Benedict, the good guy,
referring to the Mexicans he’s hired as ranch hands, explains to his new wife
that “[t]hey’d sit on their honkers all day if I didn’t keep after them.”
Yet, despite his own
prejudices, Benedict feels compelled to defend the honor of his own son’s
family, who are with him, and that of four other Mexican customers who wandered
into the restaurant of a bigot, “Sarge.”
The son, you see, had married a Mexican “squaw” a few years back and fathered
a “papoose,” as Mexican women and children were referred to in the movie. It is in this tense scene that Benedict comes
to the aid of the four customers when the restaurant owner attempts to evict
In the ensuing fist
fight, Sarge, younger and stronger than the aging Benedict, gets the better of
him. Benedict crashes onto a broken
table and a pile of dirty dishes. Adding
insult to injury, Sarge grabs a sign off the wall and throws it at him, where
it lands on his chest. All of you know
the sign I refer to. It reads, “We
reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
That movie began to open
my eyes, and I understood, for the first time, the racism flourishing in my own
life. I had been blind. Memories flashed in my mind. One was of a trip I had taken with my junior
high school football team to Alamogordo, where, hours before our game, a few of
us entered a downtown restaurant. We
hadn’t even noticed the delay in being served until the waitress approached and
informed us that our two black teammates would have to eat out back in the
kitchen. In support of our
African-American companions, we quickly left the restaurant and went elsewhere
in search of a quick meal.
The scene in Giant
also brought back another memory long forgotten when I was only twelve and had
ridden the bus with a friend to El Paso.
It was hard not to notice the segregated restrooms at the bus station in
that city (and even the water fountains, for God’s sake) that were distinctly
marked for “Whites” and for “Coloreds.”
These memories are
vividly imprinted in my mind, and I will never—ever—forget them. They help keep me from becoming complacent
about events going on around us. There’s
never a time that I drive to or through Alamogordo that doesn’t bring back a
clear picture of what took place at that restaurant.
But I speak of the past,
you might say. We in New Mexico would
like to think those kinds of prejudices never or hardly ever happened here, or
even that they don’t happen today. But I
wouldn’t take a wager on that. I know
I read an article in the
Albuquerque Journal just a few years ago entitled New Mexico No Haven From
Racism.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[i]<![endif]> Part of the article spoke of events that took
place in Albuquerque in the late 50s. It
mentioned Pecolia Benjamin, who moved to Albuquerque from her native
Mississippi 42 years ago. She said that,
as a black woman, she expected to find far less racism in her new home. Not so, she said. “In some ways, I found just as much.” She watched her own children face job
discrimination and met people who refused to have anything to do with her
because she was black.
The reporter asked
whether Albuquerque had changed all that much since the 50s? “How well is Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream
of racial harmony working in the city?” he asked. His answer came from someone you might know—District
Judge Tommy Jewell. “Racial
discrimination certainly is alive. It’s just
a lot more subtle than in Mississippi.”
Judge Jewell said he knew of racism in the courtroom occurring as
recently as last year. “It was a custody
case and the judge [commented] that the defendant needed a Spanish
interpreter. When the judge then saw a
black man in the courtroom, he said, ‘And I guess you’d need a jive
interpreter.’” You heard me right—a judge
At the Martin Luther King
Breakfast, I noted how easily we stereotype others and the problem that
behavior causes. In this essay, I’d like
to briefly hit upon a particular kind of stereotyping—racial profiling. It’s been reported for many years, but
surprisingly, only recently has it gotten much attention. It was even an issue discussed in one of the
presidential debates last year and has resurfaced since President Bush took
office this year.
well-known African-Americans, have even injected a bit of humor into how easy
we find it to stereotype individuals.
The habit is so common that one member of a minority may even stereotype
another of the same minority. Take for
example, a story told by Carl Rowan, the well-known columnist and commentator
who died a little over a year ago. He
was once called America’s “most visible black journalist.”<![if !supportFootnotes]>[ii]<![endif]> He had also served in the administrations of
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson at the cabinet level. At that time, Rowan lived in a large home
located in a posh neighborhood near the exclusive Georgetown area of our
nation’s capital. I don’t recall the
source from which I learned of Rowan’s story, but I remember it vividly.
Rowan was doing a little
yard work in front of his house, when an African-American, seeking work, passed
by in a car and stopped to ask him if there were any jobs available in the
neighborhood. When Rowan replied that he
didn’t know of any, the fellow asked, “What about your job? Does it pay pretty good?” “Hell, no,” the smiling Rowan answered, “but
I get to sleep with the master’s wife.”
Puzzled, the man went on his way, and Rowan chuckled, knowing that the
poor man never would believe an African-American could make enough money to
live in a nice, big house in that ritzy neighborhood.
Now, some of you may
think that Rowan’s story is no laughing matter.
You’re right, it isn’t. But
you’ll have to agree that it makes its point very well. And I’d guess that’s what Rowan had in
mind. We’ve kept the minorities down for
so long they can’t always imagine “up.”
To be sure, racial
profiling is no laughing matter either.
I was horrified by a recent newspaper article, Black Men Still Must
Move With Care.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[iii]<![endif]> The report told of a talk Alton White, the
black star of the Broadway musical “Ragtime,” gave to 52 young men at Harlem’s
Rice High School. He told the class he
was ordered by the police to kneel on a cement floor in July of 1999. His hands cuffed behind his back, he was told
to stare at the wall, all within full view of his neighbors. He couldn’t believe it was happening to him. He felt mortified “beyond humiliation.” It seems that neither his celebrity, talent,
gentlemanly demeanor or medium-brown skin prevented him from being harassed in
the lobby of his own apartment building when police charged in looking for some
light-skinned Latinos who were suspected of selling drugs.
White and three other black
men were arrested with the two apparent perpetrators and taken to the precinct,
where they were strip-searched and detained for five hours before they
were let go. “The racism was so
blatant,” White said, “it was hard to believe this was really happening.” He added that there had been no effort to ask
him if he lived in the building or what he was doing there.
The article goes on to
report that, despite denials from police departments around the country, police
do engage in racial profiling. And evidence
is mounting that it is rampant. White’s
experience shows that, even if you are in the right place at the right time, if
you are a black male, you will constantly be called on to prove you aren’t a
The other message of this
story is that profiling has got to stop.
Mr. White said that he cooperated with the police, knowing that if he
hadn’t, he could have been killed.
Coincidently, just a few days before Mr. White told of his nightmarish
experience, there was a hearing in the Bronx, N. Y. about the shooting of
Amadou Diallo by four cops in his own apartment building. You’ll recall, I think, that Diallo was the
man who was gunned down by a hail of bullets a few years ago when the officers
mistook his wallet for a gun.
I’ve read a syndicated
column by William Raspberry in which he posited that Diallo’s color played a
role in “the shameless shooting.”<![if !supportFootnotes]>[iv]<![endif]> Raspberry stated that he was trying to sort
out in his own mind just what about the case made him so angry—or so scared.
He first concluded that
Diallo shouldn’t have died—that whatever suspicions the four police officers
had, whatever ill-advised move Diallo might have made, none of it justified his
death. Raspberry believed that Diallo
wouldn’t have been killed had he not been black—or possibly Hispanic. The columnist said that a white man would
have survived the policemen’s mistaken identity and their misinterpretation of
his actions because a black wallet in the hands of an otherwise nonaggressive
white man wouldn’t have looked, even for an instant, like a handgun.
It wasn’t simply that the
officers “saw” a gun in Diallo’s hand; it was also important to ask why
they “saw” the gun. Raspberry reminds us
of the comedian Richard Pryor’s enactment of a black man being stopped by a
white traffic cop. Pryor’s fans will
recall his stylized gesture, thumb and index finger circled as he slowly moves
his hand toward his pocket. “I am,” he
announces with considerable articulation, “reaching for my license.”
Raspberry claimed that
what made Richard Pryor’s joke funny twenty years ago is the same thing that
ended Diallo’s life—the necessity not merely of doing nothing wrong but also of
doing nothing that would lead a white officer—conditioned by his own and
America’s racial presumptions—to suspect anything wrong. The writer ended the column with—“[T]he fact
remains that Diallo is dead, and he shouldn’t be. Millions of us believe he wouldn’t be,
but for his color.”
But you know that
we don’t have to go all the way to New York City to find racial profiling. It happened, for example, in my own
community. It probably happens more
often than we’d like to think it does.
And it even crosses racial lines, as it did in the case of the
journalist I spoke of earlier, Carl Rowan.
Some of you may recall
the reported incident that occurred in Las Cruces a year or so ago involving an
African-American staff member at NMSU. I
must admit I know only the details I read in the local newspapers. But of one thing I’m sure—I know enough of the
facts to arrive at some conclusions of my own about what took place in this
case and why.
A Chicano Las Cruces
Police Officer stopped an African-American gentleman who was driving his car
late at night. Because of the late hour,
the officer followed the car a short distance.
When the driver entered a highway ramp going the wrong way, the officer
decided to stop the vehicle. No one who
learned of the incident, to my knowledge, questioned the legitimacy generally
of an officer stopping a car traveling the wrong way on a ramp. The misunderstanding that resulted after the
stop, however, created an ugly atmosphere.
Despite what ordinarily would have been considered a lawful stop, the
incident raised some questions, at least in the driver’s mind, that the police
officer’s reasons for initially following him and then stopping the vehicle
went beyond a routine traffic stop. The
encounter led to the arrest of the black man, who later claimed he was singled
out because of the color of his skin.
The officer claimed otherwise, as you would expect, and the police
department later denied there was any wrongdoing.
What led to that
incident? Despite the department’s and
the Chicano officer’s denials and despite the apparent legitimacy of the stop,
did the driver’s color play a part in the officer’s decision to stop the
car? I myself concluded that the
officer, even though he himself was a member of a minority ethnic group,
decided to stop the driver, not just because the man had gone the wrong way on
the ramp but because of his conditioned suspicions when he initially spotted a
black driving late at night. To me, the
officer reacted in the manner predicted by William Raspberry, when he wrote of
the senseless death of Diallo.
I’d like to tell you two
stories I’m familiar with as clear examples that racism is alive and well in
this country. They happened a while ago,
but one of them continued on throughout my childhood and youth. I’m only in the picture as a “yardstick” to
measure and emphasize the time span in the struggle of one Virgil D. Hawkins.
When I was almost 10
years old and in the 4th grade at Holy Cross School in Las Cruces,
Virgil D. Hawkins applied for admission to the University of Florida Law
School. It was April of 1949. Mr. Hawkins’ application was denied. He appealed, and his case later reached the
Supreme Court of Florida. In its
opinion, the court said this man had “all the scholastic, moral and other
qualifications prescribed by the laws of Florida.” But, nonetheless, the court ruled he wasn’t
eligible for admission. Hawkins, you
see, was African-American.
In May of 1954, when I
was then almost 15 years old and in the 9th grade at Las Cruces
Junior High School, the U. S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of the public
schools. To emphasize the importance of
its ruling, the Court said that its order must be carried out “with all
Two years later, in March
of 1956, when I was 16 years old and a junior at Las Cruces High School, the U.
S. Supreme Court issued the second of two orders to the Supreme Court of
Florida in connection with the admission of Virgil D. Hawkins to the University
of Florida Law School. “He is entitled
to prompt admission,” the Court said.
“There is no reason to delay.”
A few months later, in
June of 1956, when I had completed my junior year, I had spent only my second
year attending public school with a handful of students of African
descent. Many of my contemporaries in
other schools elsewhere in our country at that time would complete their public
school education without ever attending school with an African-American
student. By then, Virgil D. Hawkins had
been before the Supreme Court of Florida three times and before the U. S. Supreme Court twice, but he still hadn’t
been admitted to law school.
In March of the following
year, when I was 17 years old and just about to graduate from high school, the
Supreme Court of Florida again denied Hawkins’ admission to the University of
Florida Law School. The court ruled that
he “does not, in fact, have a genuine interest in obtaining a legal
education.” (Emphasis mine.) The record
isn’t clear from what facts that conclusion was drawn.
In May of 1961, I was 21
years old and had just graduated from NMSU.
Many other students my age throughout the nation still had no
African-Americans in their college classrooms.
And Virgil D. Hawkins was still barred from the University of Florida
In November of 1976, when
I was already 37 years of age and had been practicing law for over twelve
years, Hawkins, who had by now graduated from a law school, appeared before the
Board of Bar Examiners in Florida.
Apparently, his application to take the Florida Bar examination had been
denied because the Massachusetts law school (not the law school in Florida,
mind you) from which he had graduated wasn’t accredited by the American Bar
Yet, Hawkins made a
unique argument. He argued that he
shouldn’t be required to take the bar examination because, had he been admitted
to the University of Florida Law School twenty seven years earlier, as he
should have been, upon graduation, he would have become a member of the Florida
Bar automatically by now under what was then known as the “diploma privilege.”
To support his argument,
he relied on a recently established precedent.
After having failed the bar exam numerous times, an applicant related to
a justice sitting on the Supreme Court of Florida had been admitted to the
practice of law simply because he had “expressed a desire to attend before the
repeal of the diploma privilege.” Virgil
D. Hawkins argued that he, too, had previously “expressed a desire to attend
law school.” The Board of Bar Examiners
accepted his argument, and at long last, he became a member of the bar. He was then 69 years old.
The unfortunate saga of
Virgil D. Hawkins doesn’t end there, however.
In the years that passed, his ability to practice law began to fail
him. After all, he had gotten a late start
in the profession. As he grew older, he
just couldn’t keep up. Disciplinary
proceedings were brought against him, and he again went before the Supreme
Court of Florida.
According to the court
“[Virgil D. Hawkins] seldom turned away an indigent client in need. However, his advanced age and lapse of years
since attending law school, the loss of a quality law school education, and the
strain of practice as a sole practitioner made the successful practice of law
difficult. . . . Worn and weary from the
struggles of the last half of his life, . . . Hawkins put down his sword, and
attempted to leave the battlefield.”
On April 18, 1985, when I
was 45 years old and contemplating running in the following year’s primary
election for a seat on the New Mexico Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of Florida
accepted Hawkins’ resignation from the bar.
He died three years later.
The sad tale of Virgil D.
Hawkins has an interesting ending. A few
months after his death, in October of 1988, I was 49 years old and completing
my second year on the Court of Appeals.
At that time, the Supreme Court of Florida reinstated Hawkins’ bar
membership. In its reinstatement
message, the court stated that his “lifelong struggle for equal justice under
the law should be memorialized.” The
court noted that it was moved by Hawkins’ final plea. “When I get to heaven,” he once said, “I want
to be a member of the Florida Bar.”
Is that a happy ending to
an otherwise sad story? I’m not sure;
I’ll let you wrestle with that. I
suggest to you, however, that, ordinarily, whenever an injustice has been
corrected or a conflict has been reconciled, the judiciary has usually played
an important role. The story of Virgil
D. Hawkins sadly serves to remind us, however, that the judicial process hasn’t
always responded quickly enough when a case cries out for justice. We have just stood there, seemingly helpless
to do anything about the unfairness.
My final tale is also
true, and occurred closer to home. It’s
the story of a Chicano lawyer from New Mexico who was traveling by car with his
wife and four children through our sister state of Texas, the setting of the
movie Giant I spoke of earlier.
They were headed back home after a vacation away from the hustle and
bustle of his law practice.
This story takes place in
the late sixties, when the war in Vietnam had already reached its peak. I mention this as a point of reference
only. Although the main character of our
story had been a member of the military for two years during the mid-sixties,
that isn’t relevant to the story, except, I suppose, that as I relate this
particular incident, you may conclude that insult was added to injury for this
man who had served his country at a crucial time. Our character’s name is likewise not
important, but for purposes of the story, I’ll call him “John.”
John and his family had
arrived in Dallas on a Sunday, late in the evening. Because they planned the next day to visit
the notorious Dealy Plaza and the Texas School Depository building, where our
beloved President John F. Kennedy was gunned down, John made arrangements to
stay at a nearby downtown hotel. His
family was tired from the long trip.
Because it was late in the day, John and his wife decided that he and
his 9-year old daughter would go find a restaurant nearby to get takeout sandwiches
and cold drinks.
I think it’s important to
add at this point that John’s wife was Anglo and that only their youngest was
their child together. The others were
his wife’s by a prior marriage to a non-Hispanic. But John had adopted them.
John and his daughter
walked for several blocks. Although they
found several restaurants that probably catered to the downtown business people
on work days, none was open on Sunday.
Finally, they found a small diner that was open.
As soon as John and his
daughter sat down at the counter, he noticed he was the only Chicano
there. Not only that; he realized the
other customers all appeared to be locals with heavy Texas drawls.
John was a stranger to
Dallas. Although he had passed through
the city many times before, he had never stopped to explore the area. And so he felt a strangeness there. He also couldn’t help thinking that this was
the place where President Kennedy was shot six or seven years before. These thoughts, as well as the fact that he
was the only minority in a diner of Texans, suddenly made him feel uneasy.
The two waitresses behind
the counter were busy taking care of other customers, and so John didn’t give a
second thought to the considerable delay in being served water and given menus. He even ignored the manner in which the
waitress finally shoved the menus in front of them. He had encountered unfriendly attitudes in
restaurants before, and he reminded himself that he wasn’t there for enjoyment
but to order food for his hungry family and to get back to their room. Pleasant service was the last thing on his
After he placed his order
to go, John couldn’t help noticing that his daughter too seemed uncomfortable
with the surroundings. She must have
noticed the brusque manner with which one bleached blond waitress had taken
Still, John was in
denial—an interesting aspect of human behavior.
It is prevalent, even in situations where a disinterested observer
wouldn’t hesitate for a second to pick up that something just wasn’t right. There are times when we don’t want to believe
that something intended to hurt us is taking place. There’s often a “delayed reaction” to events
that are unfolding before our eyes. It’s
as if a part of us is saying “this can’t be happening.” It’s common during acts of racism, and this
certainly was the case for John and his daughter on that day in Dallas.
It wasn’t until the blond
waitress, who was preparing a dessert order for someone else with her back to
John, began talking to the other waitress that it hit home. It became fairly obvious to him that the
woman wanted him to hear what she had to say, and what had been on her mind
from the moment they’d walked through the door.
“Who in the hell
do they think they are?” she complained.
“These damn Mexicans think they own the place!” She stopped to deliver a piece of pie to a
customer at the far end of the counter, then returned within a few feet of John
to continue her insults. “Why don’t they
go back across the border where they belong?” she blurted out. “Instead of getting on our welfare rolls and
living off the money you and I slave for.”
The other waitress
listened but said nothing. The angry
waitress had to leave the area to tend to other customers at a table. John was relieved momentarily that he
wouldn’t have to listen to her ugly words, obviously intended to hurt him and
He thought of taking his
daughter by the hand and walking out without his food order. But it was a weekend, and this was the only
restaurant they had found open. His
family was back in the room, tired and hungry.
He was determined, even if the woman continued her insults, to stick it
out, pay for his order, and then get the hell out of there. Under these circumstances, he realized that
was his best option, even if he had to suffer through another barrage of racial
He stood his ground. So that he and his daughter would be less
likely to hear if the woman later continued her harangue, John decided to make
small talk with his daughter until their order arrived. After what seemed an eternity, the
mean-spirited woman placed the packaged sandwiches and drinks in front of John,
along with the check. John took out a
$20 bill and pushed it across the counter with the check. A minute or so later, as he and his daughter
stood up to leave, he picked up the loose change and started to put it in his
With his food order in
hand, he wanted to say something nasty to the woman. But he fought hard against it, knowing it
would only result in an ugly confrontation he had to avoid, especially for his
daughter’s sake. Yet, somehow he
couldn’t keep from fighting back. He was
eager to show his disgust for the words of hurt. As he glanced at the loose change in his
hand, he noticed he held a few pennies.
He quickly placed the coins in his pocket with the exception of a single
penny. Carefully, he placed that
coin on the counter where it would be clearly visible to anyone.
As he and his daughter
walked a few feet past the blond waitress, he pointed to the penny and spoke
distinctly to her, “Ma’am, I left your tip on the counter.” He left those words hanging in the air,
waiting for her to register his “payback.”
The woman glanced down at
the counter and became visibly unglued when she spotted the single penny. She rushed toward it. John continued to the exit, expecting the
worst. As he reached for the door
handle, he heard the woman’s angry words behind him.
“You take your Goddamn,
filthy money and go to hell!” she exclaimed in a loud voice.
John permitted his
daughter to exit through the door and didn’t bother turning back. But, as he pulled the door closed, he heard
the penny the woman had thrown at him hit the glass door.
Stunned by what had taken
place during the past fifteen minutes or so, father and daughter walked down
the sidewalk toward the hotel. For a
long time, John said nothing; his daughter also remained quiet. For his part, he was too embarrassed by the
incident to say anything. Besides, he
felt shock and disbelief that the incident had taken place at all, even in that
day and age. In John’s mind, a large,
black cloud appeared over the entire city.
A city where he felt like a foreigner—where he didn’t belong. But more importantly, where he sensed he
Finally, after they had
walked several minutes, John’s daughter broke the silence. “Spanish people are very talented, aren’t
“Thank’s for saying
that,” he replied softly, forcing a smile, and he put his arm around his daughter’s
shoulder. Even at that young age, John
thought, she was well aware of the deeper meaning of what had taken place back
in the diner. They walked the rest of
the way saying no more. They didn’t need
to talk. Each knew what the other was
thinking as they—father and daughter—continued down the lonely street in an
Back in the hotel room,
after the children had eaten and were occupied watching TV, John’s wife noticed
his unhappy look. He told her what had
happened at the restaurant. “I’d just
like to get out of here,” he said.
“One more day because the kids are looking forward to visiting Dealy
Plaza tomorrow.” John took a couple of
aspirins for the migraine headache he felt coming on. The aspirins soon relieved his headache, but that
imaginary, dark, ugly cloud continued to loom high above the city for the rest
of the family’s stay.
As I noted earlier, these
two events really did happen.
They’re not simply mentioned as examples of what could take
place. Again, I’m well aware they
occurred some time ago. But the question
we should ask ourselves is whether they could ever happen again or even whether
they are happening today. Will
racism ever be totally wiped out? I hope
so and urge it as a goal. But I myself
doubt it. I believe I’m being a realist,
not a pessimist, in saying that. Racism
is still prevalent.
As noted in the Endnotes,
the story of Virgil D. Hawkins has been chronicled in the case law of Florida
and in an article that appeared in Trial magazine as far back as
1988. I first learned of the case from a
jurist friend of mine. Some of what I’ve
written here I heard from him. As for
the truth of the story of John and his daughter and their unpleasant experience
in our neighboring and “friendly” state of Texas, I myself can vouch for
its authenticity. You see, the person
that it happened to, the one I called “John,” was me.
I’ve never forgotten that
day, and for my sake, I hope I never will.
I’m aware it was only an isolated incident and didn’t begin to compare
with the prejudice shown to Virgil D. Hawkins in his lifetime. But it hurt, nonetheless. Many of you, I’m certain, could share similar
or worse incidents that happened to you—experiences that gave you a sense of
despair and loneliness. Experiences you
yourself will never forget.
I thank the editorial
board and editor of this publication for giving me the opportunity to share my
own thoughts on this sad but important subject.