JFK, a paperback and the arc of Southern history

When stranded between the end of one world and the beginning of the next, nothing tops off a survival kit like a good, reliable paperback.

As of Friday, I will have carried that lesson for precisely 50 years.

Two of the most ground-shaking events of my life happened within hours of each other on Nov. 22, 1963.

For most Americans my age and better, the date belongs to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But a more private trauma rode close at its heels. This was also the day I was carried South --- a slight, clueless, and very white 8-year-old boy dropped into the cauldron of Atlanta desegregation.

For me, they are not separate events, and never have been. They would melt together for my newfound neighbors in Georgia, too.

Kennedy's assassination sounded the death knell for Jim Crow in the South, and I would arrive just in time to hear it toll. Armed with nothing but a set of parents, four (later five) siblings, and a copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" that had been pressed into my hands by a tearful Mrs. Perdum.

She had cried not because she was sorry to see me leave her classroom, but because she'd just lost someone very dear to her in Dallas.

Images burrow into your head on a day like that. JFK's death will always remind me of fat, wet November snowflakes melting into the ground as a woman poked her head into our car. "Isn't it terrible?" she asked my mother, who had come to pick us up that Friday afternoon rather than wait for her children to be delivered by school bus.

We were in that much of a hurry to leave the small-town haven of Medina, Ohio, that afternoon. While the rest of the nation held its breath to see if Walter Cronkite would somehow unsay the terrible news, my family entered what would be now called a news blackout.

Which meant I was one of the few people with a genuine smile on his face as the country came unglued. In our rolling cocoon, seatbeltless and crammed in the 'way back of the station wagon, I discovered my first laugh-out-loud writer.

The world wept and wailed, and a troubled South loomed closer by the mile. Yet I found myself giggling at Mark Twain's opening description of Aunt Polly and her spectacles: "They were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for 'style, ' not service --- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well."

I like to think that, if Kennedy's murder had opened up the rabbit hole that I was falling into, Twain offered the tools necessary to survive the journey: humor and a healthy skepticism of a complicated world in which --- so said the very adult foreword in the paperback --- "maturity is virtually synonymous with corruption, hypocrisy, meanness, (and) bombast."

But in a fun way.

We drove across the Ohio River and deep into Kentucky that night. Dad was a third-shift veteran. A sister tells me we stopped in Louisville. I just know that we seven --- ages 22 months to 40 years --- crammed ourselves into a single room in a hotel walk-up. My spot was on the floor, next to the radiator.

A blur of Saturday driving ended in Atlanta, on Virginia Avenue at a one-story Hilton Inn close to the United Airlines maintenance shed, where my father would spend the next 15 years as a foreman. And this is where the news blackout ended.

I had contracted something of a cold. So when the time arrived Sunday for the giddy trip to the new, four-bedroom split-level off Old National Highway, I was left in the hotel room, with orders to keep the doors closed. Parents could do things like that in 1963.

It was the disappointment of missing out that sticks in the memory. There was nothing to do but read and watch TV. And nothing was on TV but the aftermath of Dallas. So within 24 hours of setting foot in Georgia, just like Tom Sawyer, I witnessed my first murder.

There was no Injun Joe in a cemetery for me. Just a strip-club owner named Jack Ruby, who gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.

I can't say I was marred by bearing witness to a jumble of grim-faced men in hats shouting on a black-and-white TV set. At the time, I'm not even sure I processed it as a slice of real life. I had more important things on my 8-year-old mind, like settling myself and my book into a new bedroom.

My copy of "Tom Sawyer" probably cost little more than a dollar. But it wasn't a hand-me-down, and so was worthy of respect. On our first night in a new home in what they called a new South, I grabbed the nearest thing to hand --- a tube of my mother's bright red lipstick --- and wrote on the inside flap: "This book belongs to me." No name. Just a declaration of ownership.

Fifty years later, the cover is gone, and the pages have divided into a pair of clumps. My token of Kennedy's dying day --- and my entrance into the South --- is still front and center on the bookshelf of my bedroom.

But it is one thing to arrive at a pinprick of geography, and another to take root. Becoming a Southerner in 1963 was a daunting prospect that would require more than an Allied moving van and a load of furniture.

As Kennedy was lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery that Monday, we began a week's respite from school. Explorations quickly produced the first signs of something different: Our subdivision was built on the edge of a trio of fishing lakes stocked with catfish. The "white" and "colored" signs still hung on the cinderblock outhouses.

But the as-yet unsegregated Meadows Elementary School was the flashpoint. I was the youngest of the school-aged Galloways, placed in the third-grade class of Mrs. Cobb. Her drawl, I'm sure, wasn't nearly as syrupy as my ears made it out to be.

There was indeed a language barrier to overcome. "Hey!" was a greeting, not an exclamation of surprise or offense. "You guys" immediately tagged you as an intruder and was to be avoided at all cost, in favor of the correct second-person plural, "Y'all."

But these were mere potholes on the road to Southern assimilation. Entire crossroads lay ahead. On that first day, I was quickly pressed to choose a side on the biggest civic question of my day, posed by an impromptu panel of rather large judges gathered in the boys' bathroom.

"Are you a nigger lover?" my new friends inquired.

If it wasn't the first time I'd heard the word, it was the first time it registered.

Five decades have taught me that the most challenging aspect of living in the South is the daily morality test that it throws your way. I flunked my first one. My new hero, Tom Sawyer, always had the option of vanishing into the night to become a pirate. Alas, I did not.

My oldest sister remembers a similar experience, when she happened to mention that one of the smartest girls in her class back in Ohio was African-American.

Decades would pass before I was able to make sense of that reception. Ultimately, I put it down to this: If JFK's death had ushered me into a new and different world, it had introduced my new white classmates and their families to an inevitable one.

You can still see the relief in the headlines of the day, that Lee Harvey Oswald could be explained as a communist sympathizer --- "who once wanted to trade his country for the Soviet Union" --- rather than a white man upset with Kennedy's embrace of the civil rights movement.

Yet there was the slim hope that President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan and thus a Southerner, would offer the white South a respite. He did not. In the days immediately following JFK's death, as I was exploring those catfish lakes, Johnson went the opposite route.

He called for passage of civil rights legislation as a memorial to his slain predecessor.

The 1963 Thanksgiving Day edition of The Journal-Constitution further destroyed any illusions that Johnson would backpedal. By way of explaining the new president, the newspaper quoted from a speech Johnson had given at the Gettysburg battlefield the previous May:

"The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him --- we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil --- when we reply to the Negro, asking 'patience.'"

In a way, JFK's assassination made it the first day of school for everyone in the South.

Only a few months later, President Johnson would pay a visit to Atlanta, in preparation for his re-election bid. His route would take him past the motel where we spent our first night in Georgia and down a Virginia Avenue lined with schoolchildren, myself included.

He rode in an open convertible, not unlike the one that had carried Kennedy. If memory serves, he was protected by nothing but a Stetson.

That he failed to take Georgia while winning that year's presidential sweepstakes couldn't have come as a surprise to him. "We have lost the South for a generation," Johnson told an aide after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was lowballing it.

How I came to be a Southerner is not nearly so difficult a question as why I decided to stay one. Lifelong friends of mine have left the South because they couldn't tolerate the sometimes harsh cultural climate.

Most of my family would drift away from the region. My brother and I remain. I can't speak for him, but personally, I have to blame Mr. Twain. He made me a sucker for a good story. I'm just sticking around to see how it ends --- the same reason I still go to high school reunions.

Not long after I arrived in Georgia, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would declare that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I've never been a fan of predestination -- it eliminates the drama, and always seems to underestimate man's ability to make a hash of things.

Let us simply say that the arc of Southern history bends, and leave it at that.

I was still in the same elementary school when the second assassination of that decade occurred. The school had one African-American teacher by 1968, and a few black students in the lower grades.

"My daddy says Martin Luther King is going to be the head (black) devil in hell," one of my classmates declared the next morning.

And then something different happened. A white, Southern-born friend of mine --- Darrell McKinnon was his name --- took me aside. "I don't know why they killed him. He never hurt anybody," he confessed.

Amidst all the pain, I had just witnessed the arc of Southern history bend ever so slightly. It has been an addictive thing ever since.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.