Monday, October 24, 2016

Change You Can Believe In

In Riviera Beach, Florida, the road once known as Old Dixie Highway, where the KKK burned crosses as recently as 1950, has been renamed President Barack Obama Highway. I know, I know, it didn't get anyone a better job or a better school. But it matters.
Older black residents of Riviera Beach recall a time, not so long ago, when you avoided the east side of Old Dixie Highway after dusk because that was the white side of town, and no good would come from lingering.

West of the tracks was for black residents, the men who worked mackerel down at the docks, the women who worked as domestics in swanky Palm Beach homes. The only slice of white on the black side was a subdivision called Monroe Heights, which was bordered, or protected, by a high cinder block wall built in the 1940s. If your ball bounced over that wall into whiteness, you found yourself another ball.

“They put the wall up to keep us from looking at them,” says Dan Calloway, 78, a former deputy sheriff and athlete revered in Riviera Beach for his half-century of mentoring and coaching local children.

The glaucoma affecting Mr. Calloway’s sight has not dimmed the vividness of the Riviera Beach of his youth: the guava and mango trees, the chickens, the horse-riding lawman who would snap his whip at black people; that is, until a man named Shotgun Johnny pulled him from his horse and beat the hate out of him. Mr. Calloway remembers, too, how the “black” beach was moved up to Jupiter when Singer Island suddenly became desirable, and how the Ku Klux Klan occasionally announced itself.

“They burned those crosses,” Mr. Calloway says. “We had to blow the lamps out and hide under the bed.”

Dora Johnson, 88, remembers one cross that set Old Dixie Highway aglow. It was around 1948, and she was married with two babies.

“My God, it was way up in the air,” she says of the symbol of her faith set aflame. “It was very upsetting. I’m a deep Christian, but seeing it, you’d break down and want to do something you shouldn’t do.”

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I live near a different stretch of Old Dixie Highway, so this all seems strange to me.

The road and its name never struck me as problematic. Dixie is a historical toponym, and the highway itself runs all the way across the country, and even into Canada. And in Florida itself, the highway's very existence is actually hugely important to the historical development of the state, because it connected "Dixie" with the North, and greatly facilitated the introduction of more modern, liberal culture and values (as well as technology, economics, politics, et cetera).

There's a certain tendency in our modern age to recoil from anything even tangentially associated with race in the South, but it strikes me as a bit hysterical and absurd. For example, there's no meaningful, rational connection between the name of the Old Dixie Highway and the historical actions of the KKK and other racists in Riviera, Florida.

And because of that absurdity, I can't see this as any kind of real societal progress. You claim it matters, but I disagree entirely. The word "Dixie" is not a magic incantation that summons up malevolent spirits to torment us and rekindle old hatreds. It isn't itself a symbol of racism and intolerance. No one is hurt or oppressed by Old Dixie Highway.

This isn't meaningful change. This is an excuse for people to feel proud and like they've accomplished something, without actually having to do anything useful. No one's life is made better by this, and leaving the name as it was doesn't make anyone's life worse. It's meaningless change that exists only to evoke a false sense of accomplishment.

This is like living at house number 911 on your local street, and petitioning to have it changed to 1776, and then feeling a surge of patriotic pride. Neither number has any innate power or meaning. They're just numbers - any contexts you wish to view them in are by definition externally supplied. The mere fact that you live at number 911 shouldn't hurt you or make you feel oppressed, because it has no rational link to anything. You may just as well refuse to breath oxygen on the grounds it's the same substance Hitler breathed.