Some lessons about race do come early in life

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By Don Whitehead

February is Black History Month, probably as good a time as any to let Skip know I'm sorry even if the offense committed against him occurred nearly 50 years ago.

The memory is as vivid as the permanent stain put on our society by the way black people have been treated for decades.

My rural Kentucky hometown was probably little different than most other small communities across the South in 1959. Blacks and whites could visit the same movie theatre, but the people of color were required to enter through an alley and then sit in the balcony. For them, there was no access to restroom facilities, and the alley reeked of urine.

Despite the smallness of the community, there was public bus service. My dog and I rode the bus often, sitting wherever we wished, with one exception. The long bench seat in the back had a sign just above, designating it "For colored only."

On every day but Sunday, white folks would sit at the counter inside a popular downtown restaurant. Most days, a black bakery employee would come inside the little eatery, delivering a tray of fresh-baked buns.

After setting them on the counter, he would sometimes go back outside and place an order at the sidewalk window. No matter how frightful the weather, he had to stay outside. His breath mingled with the steam from the warm food as he stood eating.

That seemed senseless, and I felt sorry for him as I sat inside the cozy diner.

Similar stories can be related by lots of people 55 and older.

Some of us did or said things intended to harm the people we didn't feel were our equals. Many of the criminal actions are well documented. Most of us watched from afar while brave people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. vowed to overcome the ignorance of the times. Lives were changed forever.

My personal failing may seem minor, but it was a turning point in my young life.

Many people in the hometown we shared may remember Skip as a handsome, well-spoken young man and an outstanding athlete.

I remember him as the youngster encountered on the sidewalk outside a bank.

I was alone and walking southbound. He was walking northbound, also alone. As we passed, I called him the "N" word.

After my cowardly utterance, I ran as fast as I could toward the J.J. Newberry store. I suppose I considered that a safe haven because my mom worked there.

He caught up to me just inside the front door. There's where he uttered the words I would remember for the next 50 years.

"Don't you say that word to me or anybody else ever again."

I don't recall what I said then. But I do know what I've never said since.

He taught me a good lesson that day.

There remains a lot to overcome. Hopefully, we shall.

- Don White is former editor of newspapers in Kentucky and now a columnist. You may reach him at don.kenandtucky@yahoo.com.