There have been boxes everywhere in my life over the last two years. We had a lake house destroyed, sold our home in Donalsonville, sold a townhouse in Auburn, bought a house in Auburn, and sold our company. If I have one goal left, it is to empty all the junk I have accumulated in the past five decades and file those things I wish to keep.
As I went through one of those boxes recently, I found a surprise. It was an overdue library book from my days in elementary school. I think the fine was something like two cents a day at the time. Given that it was some 57 years ago when I checked out the book, I tried to figure out just how much I owed.
It is hard to figure how much you are obligated for over such a long period of time. The fines increase. The interest rates increase. What I owe would easily be dozens, maybe hundreds, of times the original worth of the small sports book I checked out.
It was worth it. Reading books was a blessing to me that helped me explore a world I could not imagine. It led to a lifelong desire to travel the world, exploring those things I had only read about in books.
As I reflect on the tragic events of the past few days, I thought about that book. Black kids my age could not check out books from the public library because they were not allowed inside at the time.
The school library in my elementary years was meager by any standards of today, but far exceeded the opportunities available for my black friends. Black kids in Cottonwood, Alabama attended a three-room schoolhouse that only went through the eighth grade. There was obviously no library for them to visit in that small wooden building.
I grew up in a time that provided for separate water fountains between races. There was a balcony for blacks at the local theater. We did not eat at the same restaurants, attend the same churches, or stay at the same motels.
Yet, I enjoyed the friendship of many black boys. Sports brought us together in a town too small to field enough teams without have black and white boys playing together. That was a gift to all of us. A lesson in unity over 50 years ago. Yet we were not equal.
Later, I was a member of the first high school class at Dothan High School that was integrated for all three years. Blacks lost their school name, mascot, band, identity and so much more. Two weeks ago, a small group of black and white friends from those days located literally around the world gathered on a conference call to discuss the possibility of having a joint black/white 50th reunion.
It was a raw, brutal conversation which brought back pain and fostered hope. My constant question was can we still be talking about race 50 years later? The answer from our television screens for the past week is obvious.
The looting and the burning of buildings around the country obscures the real issues we face. Minorities are disproportionally poor, undereducated, and imprisoned. They are more likely to die from Covid-19. They have lost jobs due to the pandemic at a much greater rate than those in higher socio-economic levels.
I have spent a good part of my life wrestling with this issue. I received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award for my work in helping pass a Hate Crimes Bill, only to see it overturned four years later by the Georgia Supreme Court. Georgia remains one of only four states without a Hate Crimes Bill to this day. How can that be?
America will not heal without honest discussions about our past and collaboration about our future. It cannot be brokered by those setting buildings on fire, stealing big screen televisions and designer shoes. But it also cannot be brokered by those that ignore the pain of those who have endured racism their entire lives.
I borrowed a book a lifetime ago and never returned it. I owe the payment not just to the library that lent me that book, but to those that could not borrow the book in the first place. My fine is overdue.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org