[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
I moved to Arkansas when I was one year old, brought there by Texans who wanted to get out of the dry West Texas heat. The people that I want to acknowledge, the unsung heroes, are the white people of the South who disagreed with what was happening there. [Applause]
My family on both sides were white Southerners for hundreds of years. One side of the family came into Virginia in the early 1600s, and one of the other branches that I know of came into Maryland in the mid-1700s. The Virginia side of the family were those pioneers who intermarried with the Cherokee and moved further west across the South every couple of generations, ahead of the control of the government. What I grew up knowing about was a family history and a cultural history that, as a matter of course, oppressed people of color.
Part of one family history tells of moving to Texas, and their possessions included a slave. A great-grandfather came with the U.S. Army into Texas after the Civil War to kill off the Comanche, so that the settlers — white settlers — could take over Texas. In 1966 my grandfather told me about that. He grieved as an old man that the agricultural practices of white people (cattle grazing, sheep grazing, plowing, fencing) had caused the ground water table to drop so much in 100 years that most of the springs and rivers no longer flowed in West Texas.
I grew up in an almost entirely white county in Northwest Arkansas, very close to the Oklahoma border which was Indian territory. I went to a grade school that had, at its most, eighty kids in eight grades and we played basketball on Friday afternoons with the nearby small schools with the Indian kids. I knew how they and their families were treated, of the Trail of Tears and of the laws specifically about Indians.
My family had a 180 acre farm in the midst of forests, creeks and small farms and my brothers and sister and I roamed freely on foot for miles. I was an avid collector of the sea life fossils formed when this land, now at 1,000 feet above sea level, was under the ocean. One flat field had low mounds in it that were made by the native people who had been killed or dispossessed when white people's laws came marking ownership of the land within the past two hundred years. Very young, these things made me understand impermanence, how nature and people can change things to a point where the past is unrecognizable. In my mind, the ownership of people (known as slavery and, until recently, family law) and the ownership of pieces of land are linked and abhorrent. I wonder what we will ever do about land ownership; it is as entrenched and is seen as necessary as slavery was in the South.
Everybody in my community knew everybody and most of them were kin. I'd go six months at a time without seeing the face of a person I didn't know and the bonds of community were deep and strong. A lot of what you all who came to the South know as Black culture from when you met Black Southerners, is Southern culture. What you saw and admired was as true of white Southerners as it was of Black Southerners. For instance, I've heard a lot from white Civil Rights workers about how much they enjoyed how Black people talked with one another. A couple of years ago I was in a room full of warm and gregarious folks in Louisiana and with my eyes closed I would have thought I was in a party of Black people in Oakland, hearing the same cadence of speech, the same turn of phrase, the same humor and vivid detail. But almost everyone in the room in Louisiana was white.
There's a consistent part of the story of the Civil Rights Movement that makes it seem that all of the white Civil Rights workers were Northerners and all white Southerners were homicidal bigots. Neither is true and perpetuating those stories diminishes what white Southerners accomplished, changing our racial culture one conversation, one heart, at a time.
I remember on the radio when Faubus stood in the schoolhouse door in Little Rock and I remember the conversations between my parents and their friends about whether Black people were human or farm animals. I mean, this was a culture that was in the midst of a very deep reexamination of who we were as white people. I was blessed that my parents were on the side of humans instead of farm animals, or I might not be standing here.
Also, I was blessed because one of my mother's brothers had married a Polish Catholic; World War II mixed up people from different places. One of my father's sisters in Texas had married a Brooklyn Jew. I had gotten exposed early to the idea of a multiplicity of cultures and of different ways of thinking about people's right relation to one another.
It had never occurred to me to go to college until some teachers told my mother in my senior year of high school that I was college material. They offered me the opportunity and to help me get in. It beat going to work in the local chicken processing plant or marrying one of the farm boys that was available to marry, so I went off to the University of Arkansas in 1963. Because my mother had joined the Methodist church in some prior part of her life, I gravitated towards the Methodist Student Center. There I was strongly influenced by white Christians who were deeply committed to racial equality. Especially by the Methodist Student Minister, Jim Loudermilk, and by the Presbyterian Student Minister, George Gunn. Jim lost his job because of supporting and encouraging students working in the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the things that they did was welcome students at the University of Arkansas of all races into those student centers. At that point the University of Arkansas had around 9,000 students, and I think 10 were Black. In the religious student centers, most of us were Southerners. That was the first time that I really met other Black people, Black students who were my peers. We started doing things together As part of the sense of immortality of youth, here we were, standing in line at the movie theater, integrating the movies together. I remember, vividly, when I realized that there was this space around us. It's like here stood the five of us, this racially mixed group, and there was a space about this wide, in the line before us and in the line after us. And I realized the clear line of shot that there was from buildings nearby. So it was sinking in on me.
It was also sinking in on me, because Daddy was, at that point, the President of the Northwest Arkansas Fox Hunters Association, as conservative a group as ever existed. He hated it when my name hit the papers, raising money for a church in Mississippi, a Black church that had been burned down, because his buddies were then: "Is this your daughter?" He had to admit it, because you can't lie about a thing like that, with a name like Valliant. He said to me, "You could get shot for doing this." And I said, "And what would you have me do?" You know, there's no simple answer to that. Every white Southerner had to make our own choices and enough of us made good ones, daily choices, daily conversations, daily changes in our behavior, to help shift the white South.
Also, I want to talk about the thing that came after that for me. As I've continued my activism around the sexism that existed in the Civil Rights Movements and in the culture in general, being a white Southerner has given me a way of being compassionate with men dealing with their sexism. It gave me compassion for heterosexuals as you dealt with the fact that queers were popping up all over your lives and shattering your most cherished notions. I think a valuable thing that we did was not only shift the laws and the cultural practices around institutionalized racism, but we also really opened up the conversation about diversity in all its forms and the equal rights of all people. We also learned and modeled what it is to change, deeply change, from what we were taught. And I thank you all for contributing to that.
Copyright © Ann Valliant, 2013
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site.
Copyright to the this story belongs to the teller.