Nothing to Say
This is not the time for a dialogue between blacks and whites. This is the time for me to listen. As a white man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, I can only speak to other whites. There is nothing I need to say to my black friends beyond, “I’m sorry.” This is the time for me to listen, not speak. I need to do a lot more listening before I can enter into a dialogue about racial issues, those of the past and the present, and especially those of the future. Here are the reasons white people need to simply listen to our black friends. We have nothing to say because…
They know us better than we know them.
For generations, blacks in the South have had to study the ways of white people in order to survive. They know that we fear them. The fears of the white people were a source of the terrible Elaine Massacre and its aftermath of injustice. The mere idea that black folks were meeting to organize according to their constitutional rights sent the white establishment on a murderous rampage and set up a sustained, multi-generational suppression of the truth. We are just now learning the facts about this; black folks in Phillips County have known these things for generations. Perhaps it is time for us to study their ways for a while. Until we start listening and learning without offering foolish advice to them, we have nothing to say.
We are the guilty ones.
This may be hard to accept but we must be quiet and listen because black people have a strong case to make against us. Though we may have never been personally guilty of evil in our hearts toward black people, our society has and those who bore us probably did. Since we have flourished within the white supremacy system, we must also share the guilt of the system whether or not we have actively suppressed black folk. Why? Because we have benefited from this culture. We must not defend ourselves for there is no defense. We have nothing to say.
We need to learn more history.
The story of the black citizens of our country is just now being told and we need to hear it before we start questioning it. I have always considered myself a student of Helena’s history, but I knew nothing of the Elaine Massacre until just a few years ago. There is more history that I need to learn, and I cannot do that through an uniformed dialogue. I have nothing to say.
- We must face the facts of the Confederacy and the Battle of Helena–the home folks lost, and the good guys won. The lost cause lost because it was evil and could not succeed where our constitution was in force. Nothing more can be said.
- We must renounce any affection for the Rebel flag; it only waves to our shame. There is nothing we can explain to black folks about the Confederacy, the “war-between-the-states” or the “war-of-northern-aggression” or the “war-for-southern-independence” or any other nonsensical misnomer. It was a war to free the slaves and save the union. There is no way we can recommend any heroes of the Confederacy we may admire. Their sins far outweigh their strengths and their good points cannot be used to rescue them from their tragic beliefs and the terrible choices they made. There is nothing we need to say about them.
- At the same time, there is so much history that is good that we were never told. Now is our time to listen to this history and be inspired by the courage, strength, and resilience of the Freedman. Perhaps an historic house of worship blown in by straight winds of change can inform us of these things as we seek to rebuild it together.
We must rebuild with our mouths shut and our ears open. We have nothing to say that black folks haven’t already heard. They have much to tell us that we have never heard.
We were not there and did not experience it.
I was there when Central High School integrated in 1965 but I did not experience the abuse. I was there as a teacher at Central High School when the schools desegregated from 1971-1975 but I did not experience the trauma of the black students. So, in a very real sense, even though I was there, I was not there. I did not experience what the black students experienced. I need to listen to them and be quiet because I have nothing to say.
Promises we have received have been withheld too long.
We all have the American Dream won for us by warriors, black and white, of previous generations. Some of us took it up immediately when we became adults and we took our turn. Others heard about the promise of the dream but have never had the opportunity to do more than just dream. We need to listen to their dreams. It is their turn now. We have nothing to say because our experience was not at all like theirs. They need white friends who will listen and learn and encourage, not debaters defending the indefensible.
There is more listening that all of us need to do.
We all need to listen to the Savior. Who else deserves to be heard by all of us? Who else can inform our discussion? He spoke truths for all of us. He described a way of life, a way of listening to each other in His presence, that all of us can live up to with the Spirit’s help. It is called the Sermon on the Mount. Can we all hear it again before we speak? Only then can our dialogue begin.
Dr. Stephen Phifer
Central High School Class of 1967
© 2020 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved