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A friendship that withstood test of racism

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002


I am one of those African-American men who can sincerely say that he has had a true white friend. I will call him Paul (not his real name) because many of his relatives are still alive and my column is published in newspapers some relatives may likely read.

Ours was a friendship born of its time and place, the racially turbulent 1960s in the American South. Ours was a friendship defined by race, racism and the fractured dynamics emanating from old hatreds we were cast into.

I met Paul during the summer of 1964, when I was a 19-year-old sophomore at an all-black Texas College. I had traveled to Birmingham, Ala., with students from my campus to establish a system for registering blacks to vote. Paul, also a sophomore, was a reporter for the University of Alabama student newspaper. He spent three days shadowing my group for a story.

What struck me first were his long red hair, Howdy Doody features and thick Southern accent. I hardly understood him the first time he interviewed me. But I noticed something else about him, a significant trait I have seen in other whites in subsequent years and circumstances: He approached our all-black group with an earnest desire to understand. He did not have a bias to satisfy. He wanted to know what compelled a group of privileged black students to risk limb and life in George Wallace's and Bull Conner's Alabama?

When we left Birmingham a week later, Paul promised to visit my campus, Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. His sincerity and non-judgmental manner convinced me that I would see him again. Two weeks later, Paul came to Wiley. I introduced him to my handful of friends and my favorite professors. I was still on the football team, and Paul watched us play a losing game against Jackson State University.

During the rest of the year, we saw each other often. I would visit his campus, and he would visit mine. A year later, I quit college and joined the Marine Corps and went off to war. Paul went on to graduate, and he took a reporting job with a small newspaper in southeastern Alabama.

There, his life changed forever, and the bond between us become stronger although we were thousands of miles apart. As a reporter, he focused on the civil rights movement and the violence surrounding it. He covered the marches of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he wrote several articles that exposed Klan activity. For his efforts, he was brutally beaten three times, the last beating putting him in the hospital for three weeks.

When I was discharged from the Marine Corps, I returned to Florida and graduated from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Paul already had taken a reporting job in South Florida. Many years later, after teaching at several colleges in Illinois and Wisconsin, I again returned to Florida, and Paul and I wound up writing for the same paper.

We covered street gang-related stories together. On one occasion, Paul probably saved my life by wrestling a handgun from a skinhead hell-bent on "taking out a nigger," as the skinhead had said pointing the weapon at my chest.

Paul and I fished together, sailed his sloop in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, bar-hopped, camped, hiked and traveled the state in search of interesting stories. I introduced him to two black women. He fell for both. He lived with one for three years and asked her to marry him. She refused and left him because of the "racism mess," as she called their encounters with other people in public, was too high a price to pay. Her biggest regret was that Paul's relatives, all in Alabama, refused to meet her.

His relatives also barred me from their homes and refused all of my invitations to have dinner in restaurants. In time, they disowned Paul, calling him "the nigger loving branch of the family."

I often asked Paul to explain how he turned out so differently. He did not have an instructive answer, only a personal revelation: "I simply don't hate black people. I have no reason to hate. I just don't feel it."

He was good for me. His example made me re-evaluate my views about race and white people as a group and as individuals. My segregated, racist upbringing in the South had marked me with a simmering hatred of whites. I trusted few of them and always expected the worst when I encountered them.

Through his actions -- not through a complex philosophy of words -- Paul enlightened me. Sure, I recognized -- and still do -- racism and racist whites when I see them. But Paul taught me to accept individuals one at a time, each on his or her merits.

I have white male friends today because Paul -- born into a family of incorrigible racists -- taught me how to trust.

Paul died two weeks ago of complications related to diabetes. He was 56. I telephoned his brother in Alabama and said I wanted to attend the funeral. His response, which I wrote in my journal, was clear: "Stay away from us. We don't want your kind around here."

Even in death, racism is a powerful force. But it cannot diminish the bonds of true friendship.

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