Little White Boy (Part 1)

(Autobiographical Notes)

(Originally published in an email to my music list, August 5, 2020. Edited and published to the blog October 15, 2020.)

In the summer of 2020, I sent a series of autobiographical emails to my mailing list. Many wrote back and suggested that I post them as a blog to reach a wider audience, so I am doing that here.

I’ve been observing the recent Black Lives Matter protests over police killings with great interest, because I used to organize protests like that when I was young.  I was a radical political activist from around age 18 to 36.  That’s why my music career got such a late start.  Hardly any of you know that about me, because I haven’t told you.  It’s time I did. 

Little White Boy

I’m going to begin with my childhood, because the environment in which I was raised directly influenced my political outlook.  I told this story to Lori Grebe Cook at a class in the 2004 Song School, and she wrote a song about my childhood called Little White Boy.  I recorded the song on the Misfit  album, and play it live frequently.  Sometimes I told an abbreviated version of the story when I’ve played it live.  Now, for the first time, I’m going to tell you the full story, the one I told Lori.

Photo from Misfit Booklet
from the Misfit Deluxe Edition booklet

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared segregated schools illegal.  My dad was a southern Baptist from a small farming town south of Jackson, called Hazlehurst.  My mom was an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  They met during the Korean war when my dad was stationed at the Navy base in Philadelphia, and my mom worked there as a civilian employee.  They got married, and bought a house in Jackson, where I was raised.  My dad wasn’t especially religious, however, my mom was, and insisted that the children be raised Catholics.  In Mississippi.  In the 1950s.

How many of you know what the South was like in the 1950’s and 1960’s?  Ever heard of segregation, or Jim Crow?  Ever hear of the Civil Rights Movement?  I grew up in that environment.  Blacks and whites were segregated.  There were separate water fountains– “white” and “colored.”  Separate bathrooms.  Separate schools.  Seperate neighborhoods.  Separate everything. 

I have a memory of going to the zoo as a small child, and seeing the separate water fountains, one labelled “white” and the other “colored.”  I turned each of them on and looked at the color.  They were the same.  I tasted the water from each, they tasted the same.  I told my mom I didn’t understand what the difference was.

Little White Boy, Little White Boy
Rises to the tip of his toes
and drinks from the Colored water fountain
where no white men go
He thinks it will taste like colored crayons
black, blue, orange and green
He thinks it will taste like colored crayons
different than the water he’s seen
What’s the difference?
Oh, mama, please?
What’s the difference?
It tastes the same to me.

But that wasn’t the worst.  The worse part– for Black folks– was that they were discriminated in every walk of life.  There were places they couldn’t go, jobs they couldn’t have, opportunities unavailable to them.  The were relegated to the hardest and lowest-paying jobs.  They were insulted and degraded.  A 50-year-old educated black man, upon meeting an 8-year-old illiterate white boy, would have to step aside, take off his hat, and say, “Good morning, Mister Billy.”  The the white boy might say, “‘morning, BOY.” 

And Blacks were denied the right to vote, so they had no legal recourse to changing the situation.

The worst was the violence.  In August, 1955, when I was having my first birthday, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was visiting relatives in northerm Mississippi.  Being from Chicago, and ignorant of the dangers, he was supposedly “sassy” with a white woman grocery store clerk.  The Ku Klux Klan kidnapped him at night, killed him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

The killing of Emmett Till, however, ignited the Civil Rights Movement.  The NAACP focused on lawsuits, while new organizations, such as the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), composed of black college student activists, organized to demand voting rights and an end to segregated facillities.  Mississippi– my home state– had more civil rights activity than any other southern state, according to the excellent book by John Dittmer, Local People:  The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.

Cover of Local People

In May, 1963, when I was nine years old, black and white civil rights activists sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson.  This was a planned act of civil disobedience;  Blacks and whites weren’t allowed to sit together at restaurants;  Blacks weren’t allowed in the better “white” restaurants at all (except as workers).  A mob of white racists gathered and poured ketchup and other condiments on them, and then began beating some of them.  The police arrested… the non-violent protesters.  This made the national news.  A month later,  Medgar Evers, President of the Mississippi NAACP, was murdered in his front yard.  Both of these events occurred within 10 miles of our house.

The following summer of 1964, Black and white college students came to Mississippi as a part of SNCC’s Freedom Summer campaign to organize Mississippi Blacks to demand the right to register to vote.  Two white students– Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, and a Black Mississippi organizer James Chaney, were arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi (northeast of Jackson), and handed over to the KKK and murdered.  They weren’t the only ones.  But these murders made the national news.  Now middle class white kids were being killed.  This added to the pressure on the federal government to pass civil rights laws.

But all the civil rights activity was oblivious to this Little White Boy, living in a white neighborhood, attending white schools.  I have no memory of these events.  Kids didn’t watch the news, or read the newspaper.  And I don’t remember my parents or teachers talking about the events.  All I remembered from this time was that the city government closed the public swimming pools, rather than integrate them as required by an NAACP lawsuit.  I remember this Little White Boy thinking to himself, I don’t mind if black kids are allowed in the pool, I just want to swim!

I do remember, however, in 1966, when I was 11, seeing a civil rights march when my dad was taking me and my brothers to a barber shop.  I didn’t understand anything at the time, but the look of determination on the faces of the marchers made an impression on me.

My parents, unlike most whites at the time, raised us not to be racist.  We were taught never to use the “N word.”  This may seem like no big deal today.  But it was a big deal back then, in that environment.  When I would try to correct my white playmates, then would ridicule me, calling me a “nigger lover.”  “What’s the matter?” they would ask, “aren’t you proud to be white?”  On top of that, I remember being ridiculed at the lunch table in the third grade for being Catholic!  

I was in a difficult spot– no one wants to be socially ostracized from your neighborhood and school friends.  And of course there was the threat of violence from the bullies.  I was very small as a young boy;  much smaller than the other boys my age, so I had no confidence in my ability to defend myself in a fight.  To this LIttle White Boy it seemed like my family was an island of non-racists in an ocean of white racism.  We were out-numbered– by far.  So I walked a thin line;  I didn’t join the other kids with their racist jokes and comments, but I didn’t challenge them, either.  Still, I felt like a coward for not wanting to be beaten up or ostracized.

Now you know where this word in The Screwup Song comes from:  “I’ve been selfish and lazy, a coward and a fool.”

Perhaps I was being too hard on myself.  Those are tough choices for young child in that environment.  But I remember feeling that back then.

Black men marching, black men marching
on a bubbly blacktop street
Sweat is dripping, burns their eyes
lashes bring them to their feet
Little White Boy, Little White Boy
lean against a barber pole
Watching white men’s faces scowling
like red-hot coals
What’s the difference?
Oh, papa, please?
What’s the difference?
Is this the way it has to be?

When I entered the 7th Grade in the Fall of 1966, our Catholic school was integrated.  A few black students were enrolled.  (Public schools were still segregated, despite the Supreme Court ruling 12 years earlier.)  I remember being excited;  I thought it was cool.  And as the white students got to know and play with the black students, I saw the racism break down.  A new generation of anti-racist white youth was being created.  For me personally, I vowed I would no longer remain silent whenever a white kid said something racist to me, regardless of the price I had to pay.  It was personal now.

After the 7th grade, my dad took a job in Dallas, Texas and moved the family there.  Once again, I lived in a segregated white neighborhood, and attended a segregated white public school.  I remember thinking Texas was behind Mississippi.  But whenever a schoolmate or neighbor said something racist, I told them I didn’t want to hear that kind of language in my presence.  And guess what?  I was never beaten up, I wasn’t ostracized, nobody stopped being my friend.  I think, deep down, they knew I was right and they (or rather, their parents), were wrong.  A coward no more.

Little White Boy, Little White Boy
rises to the tip of his toes

Less than a year after we moved to Dallas, in April, 1968, I was “camping” in a friend’s backyard when the news came over the transistor radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered.  I remembered being very shook up, and depressed.  I thought things were changing.  They were, but progress is not a straight line.

After moving to Dallas, I stayed in touch with my best friend Jorge in Jackson.  In the Fall of 1971, my senior year of high school, Jorge sent me a copy of the Jackson Catholic High School student newspaper.  The lead article was an endorsement of Charles Evers for governor of Mississippi.  Evers was the first Black person to run for governor of Mississippi.  He was the brother of the murdered Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers.  One of the editors was my former classmate in the 7th grade, when our elementary school was integrated.  I remember being so proud of him and my other former classmates.  I knew this took courage, because I assumed at the time that their parents, teachers and the school administration would have been outraged and come down on them for this.  But, in hindsight, I suspect there were a lot of white people besides my parents who were not racist but too intimidated to speak up.

Photo of Charles Evers

The cover of the newspaper, shown here, quotes the chorus of “Southern Man” by Neil Young, which had become the anthem of anti-racist white youth like me.  A few years later, Lynyrd Skynyrd would attack Neil Young’s song with “Sweet Home Alabama,” which became the anthem for southern white racists.

This is the story I told Lori at the 2004 Song School.  She managed to condense it down to 3 verses and a chorus.  I could never have done that, as you can see by length of this email! 

Fast forward to the present:  I wanted to go to downtown Denver and join the protests, and, under normal circumstances I would have.  As you now understand, opposition to racism is part of my history;  it’s part of who I am.  But the protests were happening in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, which is more deadly for older people.  I’m 65.  From the photos I saw, most protesters were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.  So I had to hold myself back.  It was too risky for me.  I can’t die yet, I have a lot more music to create and record and perform.

But please check out this song and video by several Denver hip-hop artists about the Black Lives Matter protests. 

In the second half of this series, I will resume at age 17 and cover the next 20 years.  I’ll explain how my childhood experiences, combined with the general atmosphere of the “Sixties,” led me both to playing music, and becoming a radical political activist.  There was no way I could do both, so I relegated music to a hobby.  I would reverse those priorities in my mid-thirties.

End of Part 1. Click here for Part 2.

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