Guest commentary: Ending racism still an uphill battle
By Keith Hays
In 1923, a crowd of more than 3,000 gathered in Urbana's Crystal Lake Park for a Ku Klux Klan rally. The crowd was too big to be accommodated in the Klan-owned Illinois Theatre on Urbana's Main Street.
Then in East Central Illinois, as across the Wabash in Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan was a political force to be reckoned with. Membership in the Invisible Empire was a prerequisite to positions of influence in the Republican Party of the day.
My grandfather, who had been the personal secretary of Sen. William B. McKinley, was among those who were counted as the politically ambitious young men of the local Republican Party.
He was present for the rally and, according to my father, presided over the ignition of the flaming cross.
What office he held I do not know, but after his death his Klan robe and hood were found carefully folded and preserved in the attic.
For my grandfather, membership in the Klan had not been a disgrace. It was a political necessity. He was a married man with five sons to support.
If he hoped to follow his mentor into public office, and he did, he had to do what was necessary to remain an influential man in local Republican circles. In that time, membership in the Klan was one of those essentials.
I was born in Champaign's Burnham City Hospital, at about the place where County Market's meat department is now.
I attended Champaign's segregated elementary schools, ate at the town's segregated restaurants, went to the movies at its segregated theaters and attended a segregated church on Sunday.
I first got to know Negro children at Champaign Junior High School, where we played together in the school orchestra and went home to our segregated neighborhoods when school let out.
It was during my senior year that Rosa Parks was arrested. That year a mildly racist joke circulated among my class had it that the Montgomery bus boycott was like a washing machine because it was powered by a black agitator.
On the day that I graduated, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Montgomery held the Alabama statute requiring segregated buses was unconstitutional.
When I entered the University of Illinois in 1956, in the freshman class of 4,000 there were but seven black students who were not athletes. J.C. Caroline could play for the Illini but could not get a haircut at a campus barbershop.
There were no black clerks in downtown stores; no black bag boys at the local Piggly Wiggly. Middle-aged Black shoeshine boys could work in the white barbershops and double as cleaning men for downtown offices — after hours of course.
George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. The Freedom Riders courted death to register voters in Mississippi. The Civil Rights Act passed and Lester Maddox handed out ax handles.
A cross burned on Billy Morrow Jackson's lawn on Prospect Avenue. He was a nationally known artist and a member of the UI faculty. His wife was black.
We lived through the season of assassination in the spring of 1968. We saw the desegregation of Champaign's elementary schools through a program combining voluntary busing of white kids to a magnet school, Booker T. Washington, with required transportation of Negro kids to the city's all-white neighborhood schools.
We hoped to see racism end in our generation but saw only a faint glimmer against the darkness.
A half-century has passed. We still see only a glimmer in my hometown.
The reality is that we did not vanquish the darkness 50 years ago, we only lit a candle.
This year, in this new century, a quasi-public agency, the Champaign County Fair Association, brought outright racism to my hometown in the guise of entertainment.
Some condemned the performance, but far too many laughed, and most simply did not think it important: only a molehill — not a mountain. We have for the last half-century been climbing that mountain, holding a candle high against the darkness.
We will, as a people, reach the mountaintop — not in my lifetime and perhaps not in the lifetimes of my children, but surely my grandchildren will reach America's Promised Land where all men are created equal, where people are judged by their quality and not their complexion nor the language that their parents speak at home, where the darkness gives way to the promise of light.
All it takes is a few more candles!