Four years ago I wrote this column, reposted below. It remains one of my favorites, mainly because of the memories I have of my great friend Riley. I note in re-reading it four years later the spirit of hope that the country wanted to embark upon is scarce these days. We remain a troubled country. We remain divided in too many ways. I’ll have my usual column posted later this morning, but I didn’t want to let the occasion pass without noting that we are a better people when we are united, when we choose to see the potential in our strenghts instead of fearing those who see things differently, and when we want to win.
MLK, Obama, Ole Miss, And Riley
A few of the regular readers caught the fact that I attended the opening game of Ole Miss instead of my Georgia Bulldogs at the beginning of this college football season. I got a few online comments, as well as a few concerned emails. After all, with Georgia projected to have its best season in 29 years, wasn’t I in the wrong place? I only responded to the questions that it was a family thing, and that I would explain later.
With a few of the discussions we’ve had here over the past couple of days, coupled with today’s observance of MLK day, and tomorrow’s historic inauguration, I’m guessing now is as good as a time as any to tell the rest of the story.
Riley was one of my father’s closest friends. In the late 1960’s, he had been sent to serve the country Methodist church that my family had attended for a few generations in mid-west Georgia. A seminary student at Emory, Riley had been sent to check our church out, and guest-speak at a Sunday service. Having met him only a couple of days earlier, but realizing he was someone special, my father took the opportunity to introduce him to the congregation as “Our new preacher.” They were both young men with very young children, and both showed evidence of loving southern fried food a bit too much. They had much in common, and remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Riley returned to his native Mississippi after he graduated seminary, but our families remained close. He became “Uncle Riley” to me and my siblings, and his children are my “cousins”. When my father passed away, Riley dropped what he was doing to be back here for our family, and conducted my father’s funeral service. And afterwards, his similarities to my own father still strong, I grew closer to him as one of the pieces of my father that I had left.
A couple of years ago, Riley hosted me at his tailgate in “the Grove” before UGA played his Rebels. He loved Ole Miss almost as much as he loved the Methodist Church, and he loved the Methodists a lot. It was interesting to see Riley so happy and so at home in a school that still reveled in Ole Reb. After all, Riley was an active member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when he was our minister.
When I asked him about that, he told me that a lot of things have changed over time, both with respect to the University, and in a bigger sense, in the South. There was not a Rebel flag to be found in the stadium. He told me that the politically correct community had failed miserably in trying to get it removed. Then with a bit of a chuckle, he said “but Tubberville only had to mention that it was hurting recruiting one time and they were all gone.” I still love the simple pragmatism in that statement. People who were willing to fight for a symbol for whatever their personal reason were able to collectively let it go for one bigger collective reason: the desire to win.
It was not as easy to have a chuckle about making progress in race relations when Riley served our church. He told me that very few of the Church members knew he was involved with the SCLC. After all, they were considered a subversive group, and in most circles, “un-American”. I never specifically asked how long it took him before he told my father about it, and I would be willing to guess that my dad wasn’t initially approving. Dad was, after all, a product of his environment at the time. I do know, however, he was also helped into this new era, now two generations old, by Riley and others like him. Both of my parents ensured that they raised children who were not racists. Most others in our area did the same. Atlanta earned it’s moniker of “The City Too Busy To Hate”. After all, as a small city on the move, it wanted to win.
Riley was working at the SCLC’s offices in Atlanta the night Dr. King was assassinated. His recollection of Atlanta was an unbelievably uneasy calm. He spent most of the evening driving dignitaries and SCLC operatives from the airport to homes whose owners had volunteered to house guests during the days leading up to the funeral. He recalls being told that he couldn’t go near the West End or Atlanta University, because there was rioting and that “white people weren’t safe over there”. Except that Riley had already made several trips to that area, and would continue to make more, with no troubles.
His last trip of that evening was to take one of their field workers from another city, an African-American gentleman, to one of the larger houses in Druid Hills. He was a young minister in a old VW Beetle delivering and equally young and equally poor black man to one of the nicest homes in Atlanta. And with tears in his own eyes, he recounted how the owner of the home opened his front door, grabbed his guests in a huge bear hug, and said, “welcome to my house” as they all cried over the death of Dr. King.
And now, 40 years later, there is solid evidence of change. My father was at UGA when Charlayne Hunter-Galt and Hamilton Holmes integrated the school. When I attended UGA, Hamilton Holmes Jr. was my Resident Assistant, and I served on the Georgia Recruitment Team with Hamilton Holmes Sr. And the current President of the SCLC will be participating at the inauguration tomorrow of our country’s first African American President.
Riley didn’t quite make it to see this accomplishment. He succumbed to kidney disease last spring. My trip to Ole Miss was in his honor, as well as to be with his son as our families continue their friendship through the next generations. I honestly don’t know if Riley would have voted for President-elect Obama. He was one of the few people who I didn’t waste conversation with talk of current politics. I am confident, however, that he would be quite proud that our country has reached a point in history where this is possible. I am equally confident that he would tell all of us that we still have a lot of work to do. Hopefully, as a country, we still want to win.