by Alec Clayton
The first thing I thought about when I woke up this morning was that in 1955 when I was in the ninth grade at Beeson Junior High my twin brother and a friend and I were suspended for the day for wearing Bermuda shorts to school. Wearing shorts was against the rule, but we decided that if enough of us agreed to come to school wearing shorts on the same day they couldn’t suspend us all. Word was spread, and it was agreed among almost half the boys in the ninth grade. And how many actually showed up the next morning? We three. That’s all.
So we were suspended, and we decided that if we couldn’t be in school we should to Pep’s point, a popular recreation area on a lake with swimming and a water slide and, best of all, giant innertubes we could get inside and our buddies would give up a push, and we’d roll downhill and into the lake. I thought about sharing that memory with the Facebook group “Good time remembered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” And then it dawned on me that among people in the group who are around my age, almost half of them have no memories of Peps Point because they are black, and blacks were not allowed at Pep’s Point in those days.
The saddest thing about that for me, a white boy who grew up enjoying privileges that were denied to almost half the people in town, is that I did not even know I was privileged. Black kids could not go to Peps Point and could not go to the dances we went to at the Community Center on Front Street, not even when Little Richard came to play for one of the dances, and they could not eat at any of the restaurants where we ate or even at the lunch counter at Woolworths, and if they wanted to see a movie at the Saenger Theater they had to enter through a side door and sit in the balcony. I guess they had no access to the concession either. I guess I was vaguely aware of some of that, but I never gave it a second thought.
Oh, they were also not allowed in the country club where I played drums in a band. Unless they were janitors or waiters or cooks. I can’t remember the name of the band, but I remember that the band leader played the accordion and we played pop music and a little country and a little rock, and there was one old white dude who came out every Saturday night and always requested “Mack the Knife” (but he called it “Jack the Knife”) and when we played it he tipped the band $100.
Thinking back on it now, I think the only really good thing we white kids were denied were the marvelous musicians that played at the Hi-Hat Club in Palmers Crossing. Some of the best blues musicians in the world played there.
Segregation hurt blacks and whites alike but not to the same extent. We white kids never gave it a second thought, but I suspect black kids thought about it a lot.
I sympathized with those who put their lives and their livelihood and their bodies on the line for civil rights in the 1960s, but I did not take part in the movement, nor did I speak out among my white friends.
The University of Southern Mississippi was racially segregated when I started my freshman year there in 1961. After dropping out to spend two years on active duty in the navy reserve and then resuming my studies at USM, the school was integrated for the first time, and I was happy to make friends with one of the few black students and, later, when I was working at the downtown Sears, I made a point of sitting at the same table in the employees lounge with the first black woman who was hired as a salesclerk—my miniscule and only civil rights action.
The only other significant action I took was in 1967 or ’68 when I was part of the U.S. Teacher Corps, a federal program in which teachers were trained to work in poverty areas and then lent to public school districts to use as they saw fit. In Hattiesburg we were used for federally mandated integration. There were about fifty of us in the program, approximately half black and half white. They sent all the black teachers to work in previously all-white schools and all the white teachers to black schools. I was the art teacher rotating between Mary Bethune, Lilly Burney and Rowan elementary schools. I don’t think I accomplished much as a teacher, but I was proud to have been part of the effort and proud of the work done by other teachers in the Teacher Corps.
I left Hattiesburg for good in 1988, but I’m still in contact with some of my old friends. I understand that Peps Point is still a popular recreation area, and I hope it is fully and comfortably integrated. I also know that some of my white friends started going to the Hi-Hat, and I envy their having had that experience.