MORE THAN four decades later, I can still picture the four of us journeying by car from our home in northern New Jersey to Florida to visit relatives in the Miami area.
And I can still remember the shock of seeing the often-hand-scrawled signs along U.S. 301 as we entered the South for the first time in the early 1950s: "No coloreds" signs in front of $9-a-night motels; "coloreds" and "whites only" signs looming above drinking fountains at run-down gas stations; "whites only, please" signs in the windows of restaurants.
Not yet out of kindergarten during our first trip south in the winter of 1951, I was still too young to grasp the hate and ignorance hiding behind those signs.
For two weeks this summer, I was reminded of those eye-opening family trips to Florida in the 1950s while I went on another journey in search of more hopeful signs. Working on an article for a national magazine about smaller newspapers that have taken a hard look at race relations in their communities, my journey this time was by telephone and e-mail, not by automobile. It took me from Maryland to Texas, and from Akron, Ohio, to Seattle. And then to Indianapolis and Oakland - and back to Rhode Island. It also included a stop in New Orleans.
During this year, which was designated as a time for a national dialogue on race problems by President Clinton, I talked to scores of people - journalists, clergy, physicians. I talked to scores of retirees, shopkeepers, factory workers, educators and social service workers - black and white. Mainly, I was interested in how they felt about the press' ability to influence readers' feelings about race, but often our conversations went well beyond that. Not surprisingly, some of what I heard was very discouraging. For example, the mayor of a Texas city told me she refused to read beyond the first installment of a landmark series on race relations published by her city's newspaper. She said the opening story exaggerated the problem. And in Westminster, the month-long publication last year of an award-winning series on "The Black Experience" by the town's newspaper was followed by a volley of racist, hateful and anonymous comments phoned in to the paper's "Hotline" column.
But for every closed-minded mayor and intolerant reader, there were dozens of hopeful signs - from blacks and whites, and from all parts of the country. For example:
* In Akron, the Beacon Journal followed its Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 series on race relations by supporting the founding of a citizens group called Coming Together. Pledged to improving the racial climate in Akron, Coming Together has succeeded in bringing the races together for a series of events ranging from church picnics to cultural activities - and now has moved on to finding summer jobs for minority youth in white-owned businesses.
* Here in Carroll County, the school superintendent, Brian Lockard, who is white, donated his entire pay raise to a program that will recruit more minority teachers to a school district where there are 1,746 teachers - and only 18 are black.
* In Seattle, the Seattle Times responded to an educator's plea by creating and distributing 75,000 copies of "On Common Ground - Getting it together with lessons from real life," a 100-page collection of Times articles about people of different races, cultures and backgrounds. An introduction to the supplement, now used in the Washington schools as a teaching tool, expresses the hope that the stories will "open windows into parts of our community too long unseen, too little understood, too often unappreciated."
* In Wichita Falls, Texas, Brenda Jarrett, a 49-year-old black woman, has won wide acclaim as the no-nonsense director of a youth opportunities center funded by a federal initiative aimed at reducing crime and drug use in targeted areas. Jarrett, a beacon of optimism and determination in a city short of black leaders, recently led a "take back the neighborhoods" march of 60 blacks and whites through the city's streets. "When [blacks and whites] communicate, mingle and associate with each other," Jarrett says, "we begin to understand each other better."
* Also in Wichita Falls, Times Record News reporter Cody Aycock, who is white, spent three months attending services at black churches before writing the segment on religion for the aforementioned nine-part series on race relations in the city.
But no one impressed me more than Rhoda Faust, the 49-year-old owner of the Maple Street Bookstore in New Orleans.
Faust, who is white, had become angry in 1993 after reading a racist letter in the Times-Picayune reacting to the newspaper's award-winning series on race titled "Together Apart: The Myth of Race." So Faust wrote a letter of her own, which drew a friendly response from a black woman, Brenda Thompson - and a month later the two founded ERACE, a nonprofit citizens' group dedicated to curbing racism.
Four years later, ERACE, with a mailing list of 870, has distributed tens of thousands of bumper stickers saying "Eracism I all colors with love and respect," established a twice-weekly citizens forum on race, and spread its message of racial harmony by using everything from jewelry and T-shirts to appearances by Faust on talk shows and in university classrooms.
"I was stuck in a place where I did anti-racism stuff on a personal level," says Faust. "Then the [Times-Picayune] series made me feel the need to stand up and counteract what some other people were saying." Today, the once-obscure bookstore owner is convinced that "a lot of the white hatred would be dissolved if white people only knew some black people."
And that, I suspect, is what the president's year-long dialogue on race is all about: blacks and whites talking to each other and getting to know one another.
It may well prove to be an impossible dream, but I ended my two-week, cross-country journey feeling better about things. You can't help but feel a twinge of optimism after talking to people like Jarrett and Faust. Each has stared racism in the eye, and neither woman blinked. Reminds me a little of my dad, driving into the night looking for that motel on U.S. 301 without the "no coloreds" sign.
The visible signs of segregation and bigotry are mostly down now, but the hidden, ingrained remnants of racism are still very much with us. Maybe spending a year examining the symptoms will lead us to the cure. It's a journey worth taking.
Terry A. Dalton is an associate professor of English and journalism at Western Maryland College.
Pub Date: 9/07/97