I am thinking of Cecil Horton this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
I haven’t seen Cecil since high school. He probably wouldn’t remember me.
We were in the seventh grade when Cecil, who is African American, taught me there can be a big difference between preached and practiced Christianity, especially when it comes to race. Sadly, I have learned that lesson many times since.
I was a skinny, decidedly unworldly white kid when I met Cecil.
I turned 61 last month. I have lived all of my life in Kentucky, all but a few months of it in Mayfield, deep in the western part of the Bluegrass State.
Though a border state, Kentucky was part of the Jim Crow South. Segregation was still the law and the social order when I was a kid.
I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. I went to an all-white grade school. Parks, playgrounds, restaurants, motels, public toilets, movie houses, churches and even cemeteries were segregated. So was everything else in town.
African Americans were restricted to certain sections of Mayfield. I won’t repeat the ugly epithet a lot of white people collectively called the black neighborhoods.
Until I met Cecil, I can only remember one time I ever even talked to an African American my age, or about my age. I was about 10, maybe 9. Anyway, he was the son of the man who picked up our trash in a mule-drawn wagon that rolled on old car tires. The kid came with his father one day.
We played together in my back yard under our little cherry tree. I showed him my new toy Bell Telephone truck. It was painted olive-green, about the same shade as the army uniforms some of the dads on my street brought home from World War II.(My dad was a sailor.)
We had fun, not as a white kid and a black kid, but as kids, period. I never saw the kid again. I returned to my white pals and forgot him.
The local schools weren’t desegregated until I was in the seventh grade. That’s when I met Cecil.
When one kid meets another kid, one of the first questions that gets asked is, “Where does your daddy work?”
Cecil asked me first.
“My daddy works at General Tire,” I replied. I meant the big tire factory north of town that Continental Tire of Germany eventually bought out and shut down, busting the union and moving production to cheap labor countries overseas.
“Where does your daddy work?” I asked Cecil.
“My daddy is a Presbyterian preacher,” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“Right here in Mayfield,” he replied.
I thought he was pulling my leg. He wasn’t.
I was dumbfounded. I grew up in Mayfield First Presbyterian Church. I had never heard of any other Presbyterian church in town. The only black faces I ever saw in my church belonged to the middle-aged janitor who later became our trash collector and to the elderly woman who kept the kids in the nursery.
I was taught in Sunday school that Jesus loved us all the same and that we were all God’s children. It seemed pretty standard stuff. I never thought about it until I met Cecil.
I was an indifferent student all through high school, given to reading car magazines, not pondering weighty matters like racism. But even I wondered why, if we’re all God’s children, we didn’t worship together. Were Presbyterians like Cecil and his daddy not welcome in our church?
My town — and many more like it across the South and in border states like Kentucky — was deeply divided by the color bar. I didn’t see it because it didn’t affect me. Before meeting Cecil Horton, black people were invisible to me, as in the title of Ralph Ellison’s famous novel.
I am grateful to Cecil for first making me aware of racial prejudice. It was my first Road to Damascus experience about race relations in the country that is supposed to stand for “…liberty and justice for all,” as the last line in the Pledge of Allegiance says.
When I was a kid, the enemies of “…liberty and justice for all” were the communists in Russia and Red China. “It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home,” wrote Carl T. Rowan, the late syndicated newspaper columnist.
I was reminded of what Cecil said in 1963, when I was a high school freshman. King, a Baptist pastor who was leading the civil rights movement, observed that “…the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.”
Indeed it was, and still is. And for the record: traditionally African American churches never barred white folks. St. James AME in Mayfield had a white preacher a few years ago.
Anyway, King’s “the most segregated hour” speech still reminds me of the Jesus print at my church. A lot of white churches probably had one like it. Many probably still do. Jesus had brown hair, a medium white complexion and, if memory serves, green or at least hazel eyes. He looked like us.
Years later, I thought of the Jesus picture when I ran across a quote from Robert G. Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic” of the 19th century — and a Republican party bigwig: “Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power.”
Times have changed for the better in my hometown, in my neighborhood — I live with my wife and our son next door to where I grew up — and in my church. Jim Crow is long gone, thank the Good Lord. African Americans and Hispanics live up and down our street.
A handful of African Americans go to First Presbyterian. I have faith that other blacks would be welcome.
While we’ve come far in Mayfield and in the whole country, we’ve got far to go. Many whites still don’t want people of color coming to their churches. Racism is down, but not out.
Anyway, in perhaps his most famous speech, King dreamed “…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” and “…that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
Our son grew up in the hills of western Kentucky with white kids, African American kids, Asian kids and Hispanic kids. They come to our house; he goes to theirs.
I didn’t give any thought to race when I was a kid because I lived in a lily-white world. Berry IV doesn’t give any thought to race either, but for exactly opposite reason: his world isn’t lily white.
Thank you, Dr. King and thank you, too, Cecil Horton.