We'd just arrived. Long trip. Hadn't planned ahead. We'd just hopped in the Chevy and left because that's what college students did; they just took off to Florida at spring break. We wanted to be among 'em.
It was April, 1968. I was a college sophomore who thought himself already more worldly-wise than most of my clean-cut peers at the Christian college I attended, but I was looking to be more than that by getting lost in the annual orgy of fun down South.
We left the far corner of Iowa but had car trouble in Memphis—water pump went out in that '62 Chev. We turned in to the next service garage we came to, and were surprised when the boss, the mechanic, and the pump jockey were all African American. We were Northerners from lily-white homes in lily-white towns. None of us ever had to trust a black man to fix anything.
But the guy did fix us up and didn't overcharge. I was a little surprised he didn't take us to the cleaners. It was 1968.
We'd done no planning, had little money; but sometimes innocence doesn't hurt you, even if it should. Daytona Beach was dark when we found a sleazy place, an old army Quonset that likely made money only during spring breaks.
We stood in line in the creaky office, where wiry red neon still read "Vacancy." If this wasn't going to be this place, we knew we'd have to keep looking.
The line thinned down until we were second. In front of us stood a black couple. I remember feeling envy, simply assuming the two of them weren't married. I was in the world that night, “in the world.”
We were close enough to hear the old guy tell that couple that the gang right in front of them had just now taken his last room--flipped up his hands, shrugged his shoulders as if there was nothing he could do. He was so sorry but the two of them could probably find another place, he said, just down the street somewhere, but he was full up and really sorry.
They left. We lingered. We'd have to find some place too. We thought we'd ask directions.
"Not to worry," the manager said, "I still got a room. We just don't take their kind."
I knew nothing about reconstruction, of Jim Crow, about lynching, maybe a little about KKK and burning crosses. I'd grown up with sweet Christian parents who said Martin Luther King was an agitator who had friends who were known communists. I'd never seen anything close to what had just happened.
We took that last room, the one that seedy guy in that miserable Quonset wouldn't give to customers who happened to be black.
That story returned to me last night, when I realized that the way it played out for all these years in my memory was, in part, created by my own naivete. I've always assumed that the couple left that firetrap carrying the same anxiety we would have: it was late and they didn't know what they were going to do because there was no room in the inn.
But last night, listening to Trevor Noah talk about racism, it hit me that I may well have judged them by my own innocence. What if they didn't believe the jerk behind the desk? What if they knew why they didn't get a room? What if it wasn't the first time they'd read Jim Crow signs that weren't on the wall but were still strictly enforced?
I’d never considered that before, simply assumed that couple to be as innocent as I was. My naivete I’d call “white privilege.”
On our way back up north from the beaches, somewhere in northern Florida, the car radio told us the news, the death, the murder, of Dr. King.
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