Sunday, January 18, 2009


Did these signs really ever exist or was it a bad dream?
Much has been written about the coming inauguration on Tuesday and I can hardly let this momentous occasion come and go without weighing in on it myself. I'm not sure what's left to be said, but I'm going to give it a try.

On Tuesday, we will, as my minister said today, "Swear an African-American man into the highest office in the land." Given our history with race relations, this is no small feat.

When I was born, and a year later when Barack was born, we lived in a country that still had signs that said "whites only" above drinking fountains. Racism was alive and well back then. Not the covert stuff that still goes on in some places still but overt ugly stuff.

I thought about that and started thinking about all the changes large and small that had to take place between 1960 and 2009 to go from a place of segregation and racism to a place with a black president. A lot had to happen. We all had to do a lot to get here and not just the victims of racism but those of us who watched from the safety of our white skins. We had to do a lot too.

As a country we had to have Martin Luther King Jr. lead us, marches on Selma, voter registration drives, lunch counter sit-ins, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Rosa Parks. Those are just a few of the big events and big names we needed to help us get from there to here.

But we also had to have a thousand or maybe a million little things happen too. And that's where my story comes in. This is a story of one of those million little things that had to happen and it happened to me.

In the summer of 1972 I was 12 and about the coolest thing a junior high girl could do was go to the beach for the day and fry her young skin in the sun with nothing but baby-oil between her and melanoma. Fortunately for me, I grew up in the Detroit area with an abundance of lakes nearby to choose from. Of all the fun lakes to go to, the best was purported to be Camp Dearborn, a swimming recreation area in Milford, purchased and run by the city of Dearborn, a suburb that bumped up against Detroit proper.

At that time Dearborn was run by a mayor who was such an awful human I will not say his name here. I'll call him Mayor H. Here, from Wikipedia "For many years, H. was unabashed in his comments about segregation. He once told an Alabama newspaper: "They can't get in here. Every time we hear of a negro moving in ... we respond quicker than you do to a fire."He also boasted that one of his tactics to discourage blacks who had just moved into Dearborn was by providing police and fire protection that was "a little too good" -- wake-up visits every hour or so through the night in response to trouble calls."

He was a real sweetheart and the racist residents of Dearborn elected him year after year after year.

Not surprisingly Mayor H. had decided that he did not want negro children swimming in his recreation facility but in 1972, even he could not get away with saying black children couldn't come in so he devised a plan to keep them out. He declared that anyone who wanted to come into Camp Dearborn had to show ID that proved they were from Dearborn which certainly did the trick as no blacks lived in Dearborn. Funny thing though, they never did ask for ID if you happened to be a white person so people from all over the white suburbs of Detroit were able to avail themselves of the facility.

I was blissfully unaware of these racist shenanigans when I was invited by a friend to go to Camp Dearborn one day that summer. My parents quickly educated me on the topic and I was forbidden from going and though I quickly elevated the place in my mind to a kind of perfect, forbidden, tanning utopia, even I, a vain 12 year old could see their point and I never did see the ValHalla of the Detroit suburbs.

I wonder how many other parents forbade their children from going to Camp Dearborn back then. Certainly not a majority-- but some. In fact it became a common bonding experience for me and my still-best friend whose parents also banned her from going. Her parents and my parents took a stand on Camp Dearborn and they were making a difference. In a small way, but a difference.

Tuesday we will swear in a fine, decent, highly qualified man for the job of President of the United States of America. It will be a great day to stop worrying about the economy and just revel in being an American. To be proud of what we can do. Be proud that we can change something so fundamentally wrong as racism.

I dedicate this column today to my parents, Frank and Faye Zimmerman, who did their small part in this way (and other ways too numerous to mention here) and to the other people whose names do not appear in the history books but who take a stand, speak up when they see a wrong, and yes, forbid their daughters from going to Camp Dearborn.

Yes you can. Yes we did.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, those are moments when parents play a vital role in a child's life, even more so than normally.