When little Johnny started grade school the first week of September in 1957, in a one-room schoolhouse in Loyd, Wisconsin, he had no idea he was entering an integrated classroom. He would meet 18 people that first day – Mrs. Mary Lins the teacher, Ed Lee and Tom Laufenberg, his first-grade classmates Sharon Cooper, Helen Joestgen, Mary Ironmonger, Ruth Joestgen, Diane Benson, Beverly Elliott, Donna Joestgen, Curtis Elliott, Allen Thompson, Diane Huff, Mike Lee, Shirley Thompson, Dennis Elliott and two others. Of all those 13 were Caucasian and five were “Negro” as the terminology used then was. It all seemed perfectly normal to Johnny and his parents, and everyone else in Loyd’s Caucasian community.
Far away in Little Rock, Arkansas – but not as far away as everyone thought – the Caucasian community including the governor was trying to prevent nine Negro students from attending the local high school. While helping his dad milk cows Sept. 24, 1957, Johnny heard President Dwight Eisenhower’s voice come over the radio, which was always on in the barn. The president was explaining why he was sending federal troops to Little Rock.
The president said, “… under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a Federal court … It is important that the reasons for my action be understood by all our citizens. As you know the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that separate public educational facilities for the races are inherently unequal; and therefore compulsory school-segregation laws are unconstitutional.”
Nothing was said about the events in Little Rock the next day when little Johnny went back to his already integrated school in Loyd, where everything seemed right with the world. But now it occurs to little old Johnny, 63 years later, to wonder what life was really like for his African American schoolmates whose formerly enslaved grandparents came to Loyd from the south after the Civil War. They settled in ramshackle shacks up against the bluff outside of Loyd, just past Smyth Hollow Road on Wisconsin Highway 58.
Old Johnny thought to himself, “If I could sit down and talk to them now, what would they tell me about what life was like for them in 1957, and what it’s like for them now in 2020?”
Recently a commander from nearby Fort McCoy logged onto Facebook to post an account of just such a conversation, in which the men and women of color under his command told him what their lives are like in these turbulent times.
“Today was one of the worst days I’ve ever had in the Army in almost 24 years. Today I sat down with my entire battalion to discuss the current issues we are facing as a nation. I wasn’t prepared. Fort McCoy is in a very rural community. Very rural. It is nestled in between the towns of Sparta, Wisconsin, and Tomah, Wisconsin. Each town has a population under 10,000, and the demographics are not diverse. Both towns are situated in the poorest county in the state, and we are 45 minutes to an hour away from the next-biggest town. It’s not a bad place to be stationed if you like peace and quiet, small-town living, and you aren’t black or brown.
“I sat in front of a room full of people who are like family to me. I would do anything for them. By the very nature of my profession I would give my life for them. I’ve been their Command Sergeant Major for over two years now. These are people I see every day. I had no idea that I have soldiers who wear their uniforms to grocery shop because they are scared of how they are treated in Walmart when they don’t. I had no idea that I have soldiers whose kids regularly come home from school crying because another kid called them the n-word ... again. I had no idea that I had a soldier who had to take their child out of school because they were being so tormented over the color of their skin. I had no idea I had a soldier whose wife was turned down for a job at a local bank because, ‘we don’t hire your type in this town.’ I had no idea that a few weeks ago one of my soldiers, who is one of the most kind and gentle women I know, was told to ‘get out of the crosswalk n-word’ as she was out for her evening walk.
“I had no idea that I had soldiers who felt like this is the worst place they had ever been stationed in the Army. Not because of the unit, but because of the racism in the surrounding area. I had no idea. I spent two and half hours listening to them, letting them vent their fears and frustrations, and crying with them. I’m still a wreck three hours later. I’m not able to type this without choking up. These aren’t towns I want to live in. This isn’t the America that I want to live in. Something needs to change. Something needs to drastically change.”
Those of us who follow Jesus, and all of us who love America, have work to do. We can begin by listening to people of color who are in the streets and to those who are in uniform at Walmart.