"What you doin' here, boy? You're not from around here. " I turned around to face my inquisitor. He was white, about 50, easily 25 years...
“What you doin’ here, boy? You’re not from around here.” I turned around to face my inquisitor. He was white, about 50, easily 25 years older than me, coming to cast his vote in the courthouse on the town square before his day’s work.
“Sir, I’m just an interested citizen watching how things go at the polls today.” I felt awkward in my jacket and tie in the middle of the small Central Virginia town I’d been sent to, holding my clipboard in front of me with both hands as if it gave me some official status.
“You FBI?” I looked around. There was no one else close by. “No. I’m just here to see if everyone gets to vote today if that’s what they want to do.”
I’d felt alone and a little scared since getting out of my car a half-hour earlier, but now I was getting nervous. I was the only “observer” assigned to this small town, with its single polling place. There hadn’t been enough of us to send in pairs.
It was 1966, the first year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the first year that African Americans were expected to vote in any significant numbers in this part of Virginia.
Over the decades, I’ve looked back at this time in our country’s history and wondered: How could we have prided ourselves in the Declaration of Independence’s self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” while denying the opposite truth before our own eyes.
To this day, I lament our hypocrisy and strive to understand how and by what means people can absorb the true meaning of democracy. For me, a white man from a relatively privileged background, my own life’s journey is only becoming clear in hindsight.
Below the surface
“We’re doin’ just fine, son, and you can go on home.” He turned and went into the courthouse. Other men, all white and dressed in work clothes, passed by and trudged up the steps behind him to cast their votes. They glanced at me and my clipboard and didn’t say anything.
So it went most of the day. The whites came one by one, or in couples. The blacks, when they did come, came in groups of at least four, and sometimes arrived in a caravan of cars, so that 15 or 20 would walk into the courthouse at the same time.
I’ve had many people from the Northwest tell me that Virginia isn’t in the Deep South, and was nothing like Mississippi and Alabama back then, where racial hatred and violence bubbled below the surface of any confrontation between hostile whites and civil-rights workers.
Maybe Virginia wasn’t Alabama, but it was the capital of the Confederacy, and was the one state in the South that shut down all of its public schools for a full year in the 1950s rather than integrate.
With phone numbers for the local police, the state police, the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department on my clipboard, I was in a state of constant tension. By noon, I’d had four or five somewhat angry confrontations with whites, and whenever I’d see a pickup truck approach, I’d feel that another unfriendly “chat” was about to happen. But nobody touched me, and “Go back where you came from” was about as bad as it got.
I’d noticed that when black voters arrived, they often came in the same cars that had carried others to the polls. One of the drivers, about 30, passed me about noon, and without looking, said quietly, “We’re glad you’re here. We’re watching. You’ll be OK.”
When the polls closed early that evening, I headed back to the University of Virginia, where I was in my first year of law school. The hash marks on my notepad indicated that more than a hundred blacks had voted. I felt good, and relieved.
From that experience, I went on to participate in a variety of civil-rights and anti-poverty efforts while in law school and later, eventually arriving in Seattle to join the Legal Services Corporation office here and to begin representing Hispanic farmworkers in the Yakima Valley and minority tradespeople in the United Construction Workers Association in Seattle. In 1988, after a 19-year law practice, I became a King County Superior Court judge.
But, since those early days of my career, I often wondered, “How did I get there?”
It was the music
I grew up in a small town in Eastern Connecticut, with very few African Americans in the schools. I’d gone to a prep school near Hartford, and had only one black in my 1962 graduating class, a boarding student from Ghana. I went on to Cornell University in upstate New York, another place with hardly any nonwhites in the student body of 13,000. What was it in my own life that led me down this path to civil rights? Now, in the twilight of my career, I realize what brought me to this life and these struggles.
It was music.
The most “American” of all art forms are blues and jazz, poignantly reflective of our unique history as a nation. There’s no question in my mind now, in my 60s, that my fascination with the blues and jazz, starting when I was about 12, is what led me to the life I’ve lived.
I’d been exposed to my father’s jazz collection, my older brother had a fleeting interest with the blues of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and, most significantly, I lived in a dormitory room next to another student, Geoff Muldaur, and listened constantly to Geoff’s own record collection and his strumming and singing through the thin walls.
Growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s, I’d seen the televised news coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott, the student sit-ins and all the rest of the heroics of the civil-rights era. I had come to see that life for blacks in America was at odds with the words and ideals of the Founding Fathers that had been drummed into me since fourth grade. I knew it was wrong, and hypocritical. But, it was all abstract to me — and outside of my own experience.
It became real to me through listening to Geoff’s recording of “Black, Brown, and White” by Chicago blues singer Bill “Big” Broonzy:
“This song I’m singin’ about,
“Y’all know is true,
“If you black and got to work for a livin’,
“This is what they say to you:
“If you white, it’s all right,
“If you brown, you can stick aroun’,
“But if you black — oh oh brother,
“Get back, get back, get back … “
It was a simple brutal message, sung with conviction and resentment by one of the great country bluesmen of the ’40s and ’50s. It wasn’t long before I was listening deeply to Louis Armstrong sing “Black and Blue”:
“Even the mouse,
“Ran from my house,
“They laughed at me,
“And scorned me too
“What did I do,
“To be so black and blue?
“I’m white, inside
“But that don’t help my case,
“‘Cuz I, can’t hide,
“What is in my skin …
“What did I do,
“To be so black and blue?”
The civil-rights movement wasn’t a big topic of controversy or conversation at my prep school. We were all preparing ourselves for elite colleges and our own places in the economic and social stratosphere, and conducted ourselves accordingly.
The racist attitudes of the day were prevalent among many students and faculty. At least once a year, the headmaster would read to us, at a mandatory chapel service, from “The Green Pastures,” a 1930s Broadway and movie comedy set in heaven with a black “Lawd” and cast of biblical characters. He would read in his well-cultivated Amos ‘n Andy accent. At 14, I laughed along with everyone else. But, after soaking in Big Bill, Satchmo, Leadbelly and the other greats who sang of oppression and its pain, I cringed at being part of a group that could laugh at this officially approved dose of racial ridicule.
By the time I entered college, and then law school, in the 1960s, the civil-rights struggle had become “the movement,” the dominant political and social current of the United States. It, and the backlash against it, would dominate the political consciousness of all Americans, and influence our views on foreign policy, economic policy and every other issue of the day.
Popular music also began to converge around the movement and other protest outgrowths, from Bob Dylan to Les McCann, Joan Baez, “Country” Joe McDonald, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles and any other artist who cared about what was going on before us, every day.
But the path, for me and others, had been cleared years before. Many of the early blues singers, isolated to “race” record labels, sang directly of racial hatred and its impact. Billie Holiday sang about lynching in “Strange Fruit.” Others sang songs of double entendre, with more subtle messages of degradation and humiliation, the daily diet of blacks at the hands of their countrymen.
When Muldaur, now a highly regarded musician and blues singer, last appeared in Seattle, I told him he was one of the most influential people in my life.
He looked at me with mild astonishment. We’d never really been close friends. I hadn’t stayed in touch with him since Loomis School, though I’d followed his career with interest and vicarious pride.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You exposed me to black culture, and made me think,” I answered.
What Geoff and Satchmo and Billie and Big Bill and all the rest had done was let me rub my own nose in the ugliness and depravity of what we had done to our own people, while congratulating ourselves on our ideals of democracy and fair play.
In the end, that was worth much more to me than my studies and reading of American history, or my law-school education.
Good music is not fluffy entertainment. It is often raw emotion, and it makes you think about yourself, who you are, and where you fit in with other people.
That’s what it’s done for me, and that’s why I’ve done what I’ve done with my life. And I’m very grateful for that wonderful gift.
Michael J. Fox is a King County Superior Court judge.