Returning from an Honor Flight visit to Washington, D.C., recently, I read an article, "I Refuse to Listen to White Women Cry," in The Washington Post. The piece highlighted the impatience of black activist Rachel Cargle with whites' reaction to her stories about discrimination. I am a white woman who grew up in the deep South of the '50s and '60s.
Cargle brooks no tears of empathy. She calls for immediate and dramatic action. I submit that when confronted with firsthand accounts of the dehumanizing indignity suffered by African-Americans, people of conscience naturally grow sick at heart.
I felt just such an emotion as we took our Honor Flight veterans on a tour of their war memorials in D.C. Col. (Ret) Ezra "EZ" Merritt, a Vietnam veteran, was the sole African-American in our group. When our bus stopped outside the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, our guide said that the grave of Medgar Evers lay within easy walking distance of our location.
EZ began a slow walk alone in the direction of Evers' gravesite. After a quick visit to another memorial, I followed EZ, only to encounter him returning, his shoulders slumped.
"I couldn't find it," he said. I asked if he felt up to another try.
We found Evers' headstone, distinguished by the collection of rocks, coins, and flowers left in remembrance atop the marker. EZ placed a coin on the gravestone.
As we made our way back to the bus, he told me a shocking story.
EZ, now 85, was the youngest of six boys and two girls, the son of a sharecropper, Ezra "Pete" Merritt. His daddy "didn't want to sharecrop the way they wanted him to," EZ said. The boss didn't pay the sharecropper but kept a record of what he bought at the company store. At the end of the year, the boss totaled up his debt and said, "You still owe us. Keep working."
So Pete Merritt began keeping his own book, making note of every item he bought along with the price. The boss took exception to this impertinence. When the boss noticed that Pete was a good welder, repairing and sharpening his equipment in preparation for the next planting, he asked Pete to come to work for him as a blacksmith. Pete declined, saying he had to take care of his own acreage. Strike two.
One night, a black man named Tom Williams burst into Merritt's sharecropper shack. Pete was seated at the dinner table with his children. His wife and a daughter were in the kitchen.
Brandishing a pistol and rattling a handful of extra bullets, Tom shouted to Pete, "This is your backbone, and this is your coffin."
"Mama slipped into the bedroom and got a pistol from under the mattress," EZ said.
"Tom shot my dad in the back and ran," EZ said. "As he passed the open window, he saw my mother's pistol trained on him and froze. She pulled the trigger as fast as she could."
It didn't fire. As Tom bolted, he got off a parting shot. "That bullet left a burn mark across my mother's chest," EZ said.
Whoever had hired Tom Williams, for $50, to kill Pete Merritt had assured Tom that he would get out on parole early. He did.
In the aftermath of Pete Merritt's death, the boss wanted to keep the six healthy boys around. "We were good labor," EZ said. When relatives arrived to divide up the children to raise, his mother said, "Nobody's taking my children. I'm going to raise them and every one of them is going to graduate from college."
And they did, all eight of them. EZ went on to dental school at Howard University and served 33 years in the U.S. Army.
Cargle preaches "knowledge plus empathy plus action" to whites. We rely on people like her and EZ Merritt to provide the knowledge. What we do with it — confronting racism in ourselves and others, or not — requires the humility to be honest with ourselves. Our response tests the depth of our courage and reveals the quality of our character.
Standing up to racism is tough in our current-day culture but not as tough as watching a hired shooter murder your father.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Fairhope, Alabama, and Athens, Georgia.