by Beth Ohlsson

Story Summary

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Beth realized that the fight for civil rights was happening right in her own home.  When she discovered the prejudice of her family, she had a choice to make. Her family's beliefs? Or her own?

Discussion Questions

  1. What rights did the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 provide for people of color?
  2. Why was there such conflict over civil rights even after these laws were passed?
  3. Beth wanting to date a young man of color caused the turmoil of this story. Why was that such an outrageous request? What, if anything, has changed since then? When Beth realized she would never go out with Ward Brown, she saw herself as a hypocrite. Do you agree with her assessment of herself, or do you see her differently?
  4. When Beth realized she would never go out with Ward Brown, she saw herself as a hypocrite. Do you agree with her assessment of herself, or do you see her differently?
  5. What similarities do you see between the political climate of Beth's world and the political climate of today?

Resources

  • Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and Robert Bonazzi

Themes

  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript
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Hi, my name is Beth Ohlsson.

This started in all innocence. It was senior year and that night was the first intra-city basketball game between Frederick High School and my school, Governor Thomas Johnson High School. And we won! Our brand new, baby high school, paint still wet on the walls, not enough books to go around. We won! We rushed out onto the floor. We were hugging and kissing each other and the team – Black and White alike. It was a great night in 1968.

And a few days later Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

A few days after that, came the telephone call, “Would you go out with me?”

We were friends. We were good friends. We were meet-in-the-library-and-pretend-to-work-on-the-assignment friends. We were meet-at-the-bowling-alley-after-school-for-a-burger-and-a-Coke friends. We ran in a pack and so no one noticed, and nobody cared that we were sitting together and talking quietly at the table. Nobody noticed and nobody cared.

And, yet, I knew I was about to cross a line that I should not. And, so, what I said was, “I’ll have to ask.”

Mother called us to dinner a few minutes later and even though I was not the least bit hungry, I went. There was the perfunctory, “How was your day?”

“Fine.”

“What did you learn?”

“Not much.”

And, then, the predictable silence when all you heard was the clinking of the knives and the forks on the plates. My Father broke the silence, “Bill Lee stopped those buses. A couple of buses full of Negroes come in last… in town last night. Wantin’ to stir up some trouble.”

This was the response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. There had been awful rioting in Baltimore and D.C. both just an hour away from us.

“Yep, Bill Lee stopped them. Told them there wasn’t any trouble here and they couldn’t come in and they left. Some of them are all right.”

Some of them are all right?

First of all, that was as close to a political opinion as I’d ever heard my Father utter. You see, he worked for WBAL TV in Baltimore and in those days the employees were not allowed a political opinion. No bumper stickers on the cars, no office conversations and never ever discuss politics with a potential sponsor who might buy advertising time on the station.

Bill Lee was a beloved Phys Ed teacher and a coach and a pillar in the Black community. And I’d had a teacher in 8th grade, a black man, Bob Pitts and we all loved and respected him, so I had no idea my Father thought any of them were bad.

By this time, I was glaring at my Father and he was glaring right back at me. My mother gave us both a look that said we need to drop this right now.

And I had to pick that moment to open my mouth, “I want to go out with Ward Brown. He called, asked, asked me for Friday night. Can I go?”

“Who is he?”

“He’s a guy in my Problems of Democracy class. He’s on the basketball team and we’re really good friends. Can I go?”

“Picture in the paper last night? That Negro boy? Well, if you go out with him, don’t bother to come home.”

Boom! Just like that.

“But what’s wrong with that? He’s smart and he’s funny and he’s going to college and I really like him.”

“Like him all you want. But… you’re not going out with him. Not as long as you live under my roof and that’s the end of it.”

And my Father got up and left the table. My Mother stood up to clear the plates. “Darling, how could you think of such a thing? Didn’t we raise you better than it? What would people say? What would your Nana say?”

I have to hit the pause button for just a moment and tell you about my Nana’s people. You see my Nana was born in 1895. Just one generation removed from the Civil War. She was raised on a plantation in Virginia with all that that implies.

And Nana’s people were by no means rich, but she had a very strong Southern belle demeanor that I was expected to emulate. And she had a very clear line that separated right from wrong, North from South, Black from White. And, despite all that, my Nana was much beloved and… Wait a minute! Wait a minute! My Mother broke with that decorum by getting pregnant and having to marry a damn Yankee! Was my request that much worse? It wasn’t marriage!

And, then, my brother had to get into it. “Just where do you think you’d go on this date?” And he snickered, “Where do you think you could go?”

I had no answer. I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t think Ward had either. We were so naive, Ward and me. I wasn’t going to cry. And my lips started to quiver. And I fled from the table. I flung myself over the bed and I cried.

“Why shouldn’t I go out with him?” I asked the moon. Because it’s not worth the risk.

And the conversation played over and over in my head and verbal sparring had always been the family sport. But, tonight, it turned vicious and I felt attacked. They changed the rules, and nobody told me. And I had to make a choice. I could risk losing my family and my home or I could go out with Ward Brown.

And suddenly, my parents were just like those narrow, prejudiced people in my Problems of Democracy class that were the topic of discussion. The one class that I had with a black teacher named John Charity and the one class that I shared with Ward Brown.

And I knew I couldn’t go out with him. And I cried. I cried because I was a hypocrite, the lowest form of life as far as I was concerned. And I was no better than my parents when they said, “Do as I say and not as I do.”

I never went out with Ward Brown. I just couldn’t. And it would be decades before the courage of my convictions would be enough to guide my path. And, yet, I can’t help but wonder what my life might have been like if I had said “Yes” to myself and to Ward Brown.