Steve Williams

Steve Williams

The changing demographics of our nation have got some people doing insane things, but they’re not insane – just racist. The very word “racist” rubs some people the wrong way.

Many of my friends (and readers) endeavor to soften the term and disconnect it from number 45. Apparently, number 45 delights in feeding red meat to his base the way a mother delights in feeding milk to her infant.

Politically, this may help get him re-elected, but is painting a picture with broad strokes (i.e., Mexicans are rapists, women are dogs, Muslims are unpatriotic, blacks live in rat-infested communities, and third-world nations are sh*t hole countries) good for our democracy?

We can no more separate his hate-filled racist rhetoric from the recent tragedy in El Paso, Texas, than we can separate water from the ocean. And don’t give me that, “it’s the economy stupid” argument.

Many people of all colors, races, religions, and political persuasions have fought hard to protect our God-given rights and civil rights. Demeaning, and dehumanizing people from the highest office merely gives license to sick puppies to do unspeakable things to those whom they believe to be “others.”

Despite the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve given to make our laws more inclusive for everyone, hidden betwixt and between the fine line of legal and illegal, are social taboos.

Social taboos are behaviors that are legally permissible but socially unacceptable. They aren’t written within any laws; just understood and accepted.

For instance, if you violate someone’s personal space (usually three inches), that person may ask you to back away or move away himself or herself.

Social taboos rarely rise to the level of criminal behavior, but they should not be ignored. Doing so could cost you your life as it did Emmett Till (more about him later).

When legal segregation was finally outlawed, social taboos were still widely practiced. Even today, they exist in one form or another. In 1967, it was, in fact, legal for black athletes to date or marry outside of their race. However, Hall of Fame baseball great Reggie Jackson claimed several teams refused to draft him because he was married to a white woman. Likewise, the tabloids excoriated legendary boxer Jack Johnson for his propensity for dating white women.

For many black athletes, it wasn’t so much “who” they dated or married, as it was the position they played. For years, the position of quarterback and shortstop were considered “white positions.” Presumably, these high profile positions were reserved for athletes with greater intellectual skills.

The best place to observe social taboos is television. While a few shows may push the proverbial envelope, most avoid anything too controversial. Nevertheless, in 1968, an episode of ‘Star Trek’ created quite a controversy.

When the writers of the hugely popular show called for the ship’s captain, James T. Kirk, played by white actor William Shatner, to kiss Uhura, a black woman played by Michelle Nichols, the producers initially disallowed it. They argued that advertisers and sponsors, particularly in the South, were not ready for public displays of interracial affection. Only after Shatner threatened to quit the popular show was a semblance of a kiss staged.

Similarly, when singer extraordinaire, Nat King Cole hosted his own television show in 1956, he could not secure a single national sponsor. Cole’s producers informed him that the network (NBC) feared southern viewers would adversely react to a black man hosting his own show.

It seems silly today, but Cole had to be careful about how he related to his guest stars. He liked getting physical with his male show biz pals, often putting a loving arm around them. But he was mindful never to touch the white women on the show. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that in some parts of the country, even at that late date, doing so would have been a lynch-worthy offense. After one year, NBC canceled the show because potential advertisers were reluctant to sign on for fear that disgruntled Southern viewers would boycott their products.

In 1968, actress/entertainer Diane Carroll starred in her own television sitcom called ‘Julia.’ Notable for being one of the first weekly series to depict a black woman in a non-stereotypical role, Carroll played widowed single mother Julia Baker, who was a nurse in a doctor’s office. Once again, many southern viewers complained that Carroll’s role as a head nurse was “unrealistic for a “colored” woman. Ironically, many blacks argued Carroll’s character was not black enough.

Hollywood was not immune to social taboos either. In 1967, two movies stirred up quite a controversy. Interestingly, both movies starred Sidney Poitier. In the first film, ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective visiting his mother in a small Mississippi town. Tibbs inadvertently gets involved in a local murder investigation.

A big-city detective who does not play by the accepted southern rules, Tibbs ruffles the feathers of the white chief of police Bill Gillespie (played by Rod Steiger). During a heated argument between Tibbs and a white suspect, Tibbs is slapped in the face. Instinctively, he hits the suspect back. While most black viewers cheered Poitier’s symbol of machismo, many whites, particularly southerners, wondered why Tibbs wasn’t hanged from a tree.

Poitier’s second controversial movie that year was ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ also starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. This time, Poitier’s character is a handsome, articulate, talented, affluent physician who falls in love with a white graduate student. As their romance heats up, both wrestle with how they will tell their respective parents of their plans to marry. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that both of their parents are less than excited about their plans to marry.

But the interesting thing about the movie was the fact that it was controversial.

While much of the controversy focused on a white woman wanting to marry a black man, a larger issue was looming. Though the graduate student came from a family of wealth, many black viewers wondered what she contributed to their relationship, besides her color. They sensed a subtle trace of white supremacy.

On the one hand, Poitier’s character: a wealthy, successful, super-educated, and prominent doctor with a bright future in front of him, was juxtaposed with an unemployed student whose only accomplishment to date was her color. Despite this imbalance, her parents dared to question whether he was good enough for their daughter.

Today, neither the plot nor the movie would work. However, in 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in many states.

As incredulous as it may seem, if you saw the movies ‘The Help,’ ‘Hidden Figures,’ ‘Loving’ or perhaps read these novels, then you have a pretty good idea about social taboos.

Jumping out of one’s social lane often led to jail time for many minorities and sometimes worse as in Emmett Till’s case. Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, went to visit his grandmother in Mississippi for the summer In 1955. He didn’t know about the delicate social etiquette between blacks and whites in the South.

While in town one day, he “allegedly” winked at a white woman. A few nights later, a band of hooded white men came to his grandmother’s house. They dragged him out of his bed, took him into the woods, brutally beat and tortured him before shooting him and dumping his body into a local swamp. When Till’s body was finally found, it was so badly mutilated that the undertakers begged his mother not to open the casket at his funeral. After pondering their advice, his mother chose to open it stating — “so all the world can see what they did to my son.”

Steve Williams is an award-winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.