Memory and Identity:
Black Lives Matter (BLM) has done more for the American psyche than all civics classes combined. What we recall about each other and our experiences is due as much to the present as the past. BLM has opened a chain of historical connections that we can feel and articulate now.
Racism, according to BLM, is a practice that we create or address every day; not an experience filed in some distant recess of our brain to be retrieved on a Martin Luther King holiday. Understanding one person’s experience of racism and its effects is as important as a host of statistics.
My brother-in-law, George E. Reis, is an African American male, who is being interviewed by a white psychologist: me. George is married to my younger sister, Terri, who is white. We have known each other for over 30 years. This interview is triggered by the racial injustice we’re seeing in today’s current events. It is the first of a two-part series.
My questions are in bold and George’s answers are written following each question.
George, can you tell us a little about where you grew up?
I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 13, 1943. I’m 77 years old. My grandparents raised me because my father was an alcoholic and my mother couldn’t cope with my brother and me. So, one day my mother put our clothes in a paper bag and told us to go sleep on someone else’s porch. I was six years old. Luckily, we had grandparents nearby who provided for us, even though things were difficult for my grandfather because he only had a sixth-grade education.
What are some of your first memories of racism, if any?
I was very young, maybe four or five. I couldn’t read the sign above the water fountain that read, “Whites Only”, so I began to drink. My mother was standing nearby. A white man came out of nowhere and grabbed me, “Can’t you read? It says Whites Only, now get out of here”. My mother was visibly shaking and upset. She said, “Let’s go.” And we left. This happened on many occasions where lots of things were off-limits to Black people.
Actually, in a strange way, racism helped me learn to read in a real way. I had a newspaper delivery route to make money. I was folding newspapers in August 1955 when I saw the picture of Emmett Till on the front page. His black body was so beat-up, and brutalized that I had to read more.
In case readers don’t recall, who was Emmet Till?
Emmet Till was a 14-year-old African American boy who was from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered after a rumor spread that he flirted with a white woman in a store. His body was later fished out of the muddy Tallahatchie River.
The woman at first said that he whistled at her, then later that he tried to grab her, changing her story twice. The two white men who later confessed to murdering him were acquitted by an all-white all-male jury and spent the rest of their lives in freedom. The FBI later discovered that Carolyn Bryant’s husband—the woman who fabricated the story was the wife of one of the men who murdered Emmet. The FBI, who reopened the case, is blocking any further release of information.
Psychologists often consider young adulthood a defining time in a person’s development. It’s a time when personal identity and worldview are being formed. Can you tell us something about high school and your entrance into college?
I was recognized as the best football player in high school. Even though when we were winning they’d play the whites, and bench us, but as soon the team started losing, they’d play the blacks.
Coming home from playing a game was often difficult. Sometimes white boys would corner us and tell us sing for me and make fun of us. Or we would see the lights of a police car and we just started running. We got good at running.
I wanted to go to LSU, but couldn’t because they were segregated. So I got a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. There were two blacks on the team. I was a running back. The white players resented passing the ball to a black player, and when I was tackled and went down, the white players on the other side would spit on me, and attacked me by trying to gouge my eyes.
In the locker room, which was segregated for showering, you could overhear the white players say, “we don’t want niggers to win.” When I told the coach what was going on, he told me, “Well, that’s the way it is. Don’t worry about it. Just play.” I would go home to my room and feel the weight of the world on my shoulders.
One day, we were playing Notre Dame on national TV. They were leading us by six points. The coach called me into punt and that’s when I had had it; I refused to play. The attitude of so many of the coaches was hey look, you’re from Mississippi, you’re ignorant, and you must have had a good tutor. Most people saw us as 1/5 of a person, as former slaves with limited intelligence.
About two years into college I saw on TV that the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered on his way to the front door of his house. He was my customer on my newspaper route. We all respected him for his outspoken support of civil rights. Hedges surrounded his house, and the only place they could have shot and killed him was in the driveway, which they did. This left a lasting impression on me from my college years and to this day.
I transferred to the University of Colorado, Boulder, and finally Colorado State University to play football. It was a thousand times more liberal than what I had come from. Yet, it wasn’t easy. When marches started on campus due to the Vietnam War, we were told, “You are here to play ball, not protest.” The school administration and coaches told us that they were tired of us being uppity; that we should be grateful; that if we weren’t playing ball we’d be pumping gas or in jail.
The war in Vietnam was expanding at this time. Did you participate in it?
I was drafted and spent two years in Vietnam. I felt freer and was treated better in Vietnam than in the U.S., in spite of the war; in spite of the fact that we were killing Vietnamese.
End part one.