Even in Oxford, separated by thousands of miles and a social and cultural chasm from the events of the American Civil Rights Movement, there are people who have experienced climactic moments in the march towards global justice. Joe Martin lived through the pivotal years which saw the struggle for civil liberties come to a fore. His story is necessary not simply in its poignancy, but for the way in which—as a white man who had lived in the segregated South—Joe has come to terms with social justice in his own life.
Having left the spires and cobble-stones, and an ever-growing pile of paper behind, I find myself just outside of Oxford, sat in a little white house. Here too are piles of books and pages: it is a collection which spans decades. It is the lifelong, intellectual and moral pursuit of one man seeking to make use of the privilege his race affords him. A pursuit which stems from a childhood in the segregated American South and is directly linked to the school which features in three laminated pictures, stuck with a purposeful precision to a kitchen wall.
The school is Central High: Little Rock, Arkansas. And the man who has opened his home to me is Joe Martin. Not only was Central High Joe’s high-school, but it was here, a few years following his graduation, that the admission of nine black children to the school sparked the decisive battle between federal and state power over the legal right to integration in segregated 1950s America. The ‘Little Rock nine,’ as they came to be called, were subject to the same emotional and physical abuse which with a sickening thud reverberated throughout the Civil Rights era. Their actions, poise, and courage were at the heart of one of the most crucial battles in the struggle for equality.
Joe points to the pictures of Central High. This is what I’ve come to talk to him about—the building, the town without, and the people within it. I wonder if there is a current of penance that has motivated his life-work. Joe later confirms that, yes, having been a white man on the ‘privileged’ side of segregation, this “puts an obligation on me” to put himself in the position of those who did not have his same privileges. He draws in his breath—”it makes me so angry” he says, as he recalls a hatred against blacks which he has had to access through the pages that fill his home. The gains of the past where black and white began to merge, has today given way to a violent, murky darkness—just as the oil mixed in water separates once more. We see it in the present American divisions surrounding police-involved killings, poverty, and institutional distrust. It is this resurfacing of old hatred through the cracks in our present, which makes Joe’s life-story, his internal struggle and attempt at understanding, ever-more essential for Oxford students to understand the real history of the American Civil Rights Movement and its lessons for our own time.
Born in 1934, Joe grew up in the ‘segregated South,’ where the racial divide was both instituted and reinforced by the day-to-day intellectual and social practice of ‘acceptance.’ It is this—an unquestioning personal and tangible reconciliation with segregation— which remains one of the most terrible and foundational aspects of the simplistic brutality of the racial divide. Though he does not believe that many were used, Joe tells me that in his neighbourhood, each house had been built with a servant’s quarters attached to the garage. ‘The help’—a term that he struggles to use, explaining to me that he will only repeat such terms to me in telling this story, as this
was the language of the time—were all black, like the ‘yard boys’ who would work in the gardens. Of course, these ‘boys’ were men, and Joe says he hates the term. And yet, the allusion to these anachronisms reminds us of the potent force of language, which acted to first reinforce a notion of racial hierarchy, and then, led to the debasement of the black social contingent.
Language, however, is merely the signifier for what translated to distressing and deplorable social realities. Somewhat to this end, I asked Joe at what point he had found himself aware of a racial ‘difference’—this social construct which necessitated society to draw boundaries, strengthened by fear and enmity, around ‘the other’. He told me that, in fact, he had grown up only vaguely aware of the divide, with a perception of blacks simply being the servant class; these were the only people of colour he encountered.
As was the tradition, he and his sister were taken care of by black nurses, and in his household the cooks and the cleaners were black. He tells me that he loved his nurse, and yet there remains an undeniable irony in so many growing to alienate and hate so deeply those whom, as children, they had grown and known to love.
Joe never learned to be comfortable with these contradictions. He has spent his adulthood attempting to understand (though he is the one to express how, removed from the experience, full understanding will never be wholly possible) the torments of the life that plagued those on the opposite side of the divide that demarcated his early life. As a child, it was an inexplicable feeling of ‘wrongness’ which first made him ‘aware’ of segregation and division.
As a toddler, in the years before America’s entry into WWII, Joe recalls how one of the ‘servant’s quarters’ annexed to the houses along the street was occupied by a maid, who had a small child of four or five. Joe, around the same age, along with other children in his neighbourhood, would all play together with the boy—evidently black. And yet, for no reason other than ‘the grown-ups’ belief that this interaction was ‘wrong,’ the white children were not simply told to stop playing with the maid’s son, but both the child and mother were forced to leave the annex—their home— and live back in the ‘black’ side of town.
It was at this point that Joe remembers feeling upset, that this was not right. His epiphany mirrors the gradual realisations of countless others at various moments across the South, having reached that point at which the scales are at first tipped from a point of innocence to hardening enmity towards an unjust system. Martin Luther King provides a poignant example. In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King , Jr., he writes:
“From the age of three I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together.”
But later… “the climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me… and here for the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem.”
Similarly too, my own father, a black child in Wales, remembers the first time he felt ‘different.’ Walking along the road with my grandmother, a little white boy came up to her, kicked her in the shin, called her ‘black’ and then ran away. Stories like these, where we bear ‘witness’ to the moment at which the children are conditioned to hate, and to ‘see’ race, remain the greatest tragedy to me. They are the greatest proof, perhaps, that difference at its core is truly founded upon artificial distinctions.
The question of sight and blindness was one I talked about with Joe. Given his devout Christianity, I wondered how one reconciled segregation with a religion preaching of the brotherhood of all people. His struggle seemed to bear something in common thematically with the story of the black church in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that is turned into a white gambling house on weekdays. It is a question which I sense Joe has struggled with before. He tells me that, particularly in reading about the lynchings of the 1920s and 30s where death became a sport and a spectacle, he finds it hard to believe that those people, standing there, taking pleasure in the killing, were true Christians. He closes his eyes, pained, as he shakes his head at the thought of these lynchings. He tells me that learning about these events came as a painful surprise. And yet, as our conversation deepened, I came to believe that it is our duty to—however pain- fully—resurrect this past, so that it may form a barrier to the hate which begins to take its ancient forms once more.
He evokes his own father to me—a partner in a roofing company—who Joe says not only directed a large group of all-black workmen, but was respected for his fairness. Though he was proud of his father’s decency, he acknowledges that the idea of integration was unthinkable to his parents. Though they were kind and fair, they operated within the limits of segregation. He does not believe that they were not Christians: he argues that it is wrong to devalue their professed faith as Christians for their blind spots as, like them, there were many who still practised love and fairness. However, there remains on his part a decisive and lasting frustration with what they did not see, and how they could not escape the boundaries they imposed.
However, for Joe, the Church was also the institution through which he was able to discover a community supporting increasing resistance to the segregation, racism and prejudice of the time. In Sunday School classes at the Methodist Church, Joe tells me how by the time he was twelve or thirteen, teachings would incorporate the idea that separation on the basis of race was wrong, and that this “resonated with what I felt within myself.” There were other instances of attempts to encourage tolerance, and integration, with the members of the Nationalist Women’s Methodist group setting about building a campsite near Little Rock, which was to act as a forum for inter-racial discussion in the ‘de jure’ era of segregation.
However, whilst Joe helped build the campsite, after just one meeting with the members of a Youth Group from a Black Methodist Church, no further events were allowed to take place due to the ‘concerns’ of white parents. The suppression of progress was di cult to bear. Joe himself says that even when he had reached a point where he was at last aware of segregation, he still believed that integration was an ideal, a state of living that he would not see in his lifetime. It would take many years to come about. This would seem to exemplify to me above anything else the sheer extent to which segregation was ingrained in the psyche of the time, and doubly, Joe tells me that this came from his lack of true understanding of black lives.
For all the tragedy, the scene that Joe paints of the time is a bitter comedy. The expanse of Central High, which took up the space of two city blocks, was deemed “the most beautiful high-school in the country”. Joe recalls how he and his classmates would talk of “how wonderful it was” that there was such diversity in the school (whose students came from three distinct socio-economic areas), with all its different classes and backgrounds, and that this was ‘special.’ They were ‘blind’ to the fact, however, that 25 per cent of kids their age were not there, but in a different school, for black children, on another less beautiful block in town.
Segregation was taken for granted. The permanence of the racial divide continued into Joe’s college years when, as a scholarship student at Harvard, he remembers there only being ten black freshman amidst 1,000. He remembers one, Clifford Alexander, to have been an ‘outstanding’ person, President of the class, and talented. Yet even though the students ate at the same table, the black members of the class were so few among the sea of thousands that ‘you didn’t get to know them, really.’
It was in the summer after his freshman year that that uncomfortable, growing sense of an ‘unjust’ status-quo, a feeling which originated in interrupted childhood friendship, reached the point where knowledge first touched ‘understanding.’ It was in coming to know the permanent directors of a Christian campsite, who in turn knew the leaders of a Black Methodist run camp, that Joe first agreed to help one day, and then took up the offer to stay a week in the camp run for black children.
Joe Martin sits on his sofa and I take this moment to say that I admire him greatly: for his fearlessness to draw out and reflect upon his, and all our limitations, the way in which he thinks carefully and fully before and as he speaks, and for the way in which he sees no end to betterment. He tells me then, with the genuine scope of seeking to understand this time in his life, that he remembers that he found it a ‘somewhat frightening prospect’ to spend the night as the only white man among many black men.
He was not spat upon or kicked at, and staying the night did not launch a battle between state and federal power, and yet, in a time where it was too easy to live in blindness, much in the spirit of the Little Rock Nine, Joe made his own first steps towards integration and towards positive change. It was “good for me to be the one in the minority.’ Preaching to the crowd the next day—his first ever sermon, which he says was not a good one, written by the eighteen-year-old that he was—he recalls with a laugh how encouraging that congregation was, clapping this young, white preacher.
It was then that Joe tells me that he came to the realisation that his ideas concerning segregation’—his belief that it would take generations for change to happen, were ‘unjust’. He came to understand the necessity of change.
Joe has lived in England for many decades now, and he recites to me the words of his dear friend Sylvester Jacobs, who with the help of Joe’s late wife, wrote of his experiences as a black man. These were words which Joe said affected him deeply. Jacobs, in his writings, asks ‘I kept wondering, am I really inferior, does God really hate black people?’ Joe talks to me of how it long it took Jacobs—a grown man—to be able to look at himself in the mirror; to look at himself and like his dark skin, his ‘black’ face, his black lips, the palms of his hands which were faded and pink, and the blackness of his body.
On Joe’s wall are photographs taken by Jacobs, black and white images which are poignant not for the colour of the people’s skin but in the universality of the pain they depict, as parents stand together at a funeral. We talk of Joe’s house in England, and of how he made sure that his door was open to all (despite the British being much less inclined to walk in). It brings him great happiness to see that his children, who he wanted to condition not to division, but to inclusion, are raising their own children in the same way.
Joe visits Little Rock every five years, for his high-school reunion. He tells me that each time, he walks back down to his old home, knocks on the door and asks whoever is in whether they would like to know the history of the house. He tells me, also, how one such time, it was a black man who opened the door. A black man wearing a Harvard jumper, and who had also gone to Central High. They’re great friends now, and always sit down for tea. Joe tells me with great joy how happy it makes him that it was “my house that integrated Little Rock!”
At his next high-school reunion, Joe wants to suggest that the alumni from Dunbar—the black high-school in Little Rock—are invited too, and he points me to a new study on Civil Rights era America on his windowsill that brings him as much pain as understanding. Yet, as we get up to look at the pictures on the wall, what strike me are the emotions—the sadness of Jacobs’ pictures, and the happiness in the Martins’ wedding day photos. It is simple, it is clichéd, but I think somewhere it must be said that we are all ‘human,’ all people.
The photographs of Central High are beautiful, but perhaps a tad artificial with no person in sight. Joe says that the hostility that the Little Rock nine faced in the halls which he had just left was ‘ludicrous’. And yet, there is some promise in those three pictures, a reminder that we are the ones who fill the halls, and have the ability to build up barriers and break down walls. Let us break down walls.
Returning home, the familiar path I take down past G&Ds is one that I am fortunate to take. I don’t ride down to a part of town where I must live in oblivion due to the colour of my skin. For now, the only pit of despair I must climb out of is an essay crisis. And yet, I say this all with a very heavy pinch of salt. My father became the first of his family to make it to university, kicked and spat at in school, and himself one of the few black men or women among hundreds. Unlike him, I was not told to not bother trying making an application. Yet, I remember wondering since a young age, being someone somewhere between black and white, what path my life would’ve taken as one, or the other. Because race matters. It still matters today, as latent lines of segregation x in our minds, and a propensity to divide still reigns.
Somewhere today someone was shot dead because of the colour of their skin, for their religion. The headlines ash, we feel a pang, and yet most of us fall back to our old rhythms: those of the past. My greatest admiration for Joe is his refusal to see an end, or to believe it to be the duty of the future to bring about change. He admits that there is still much to be done, and indeed we must do. We cannot be blind. We must remain aware—“woke”—and not allow time to soften the image or the reality of events of history or of today. It is for us to strive to know our other, and work to understand, so that one day all can truly live in the image of the maxim, that that we are all indeed “just human.”