Segregation threatens your soul

From Where I Sit: My column in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, October 2010

“Trouble, trouble, I have had trouble all my days. / It seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave,” sang the great blues artist Bessie Smith. An African-American, Smith’s skin color put her in her grave, according to the authoritative American National Biography: “On 26 September 1937, with Richard Morgan at the wheel, her car collided with a truck, parked without lights on the roadside at Coahoma, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. Because of her skin color, she was refused admission in nearby hospitals and therefore had to be taken to an African-American hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi—over200 miles from the accident site. Never regaining consciousness, she died eight and a half hours after the time of the accident due to internal injuries and loss of blood.”

I am in the Corner Room having breakfast and staring at two photographs. The first is Elliott Erwitt’s 1950 photograph of a black man drinking from a segregated water fountain. Above his head is the sign “Colored.” To the left is another water fountain with the sign “White.” The white water fountain is refrigerated. The colored one is not.

When the photograph was taken, it was illegal for the black man to drink from the white fountain. If he had tried and been caught, the police would have arrested him and taken him to jail; he would have been tried, sentenced and imprisoned. In the segregated South, black men “who did not know their place” were lynched for less.

The second photograph is of the entrance to Ye Olde College Diner just up the street. Clearly, no human being in a wheel chair can enter even though we are celebrating this year the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) when the president said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” At the College Diner, across the street from Penn State, the shameful wall of exclusion remains.

Why this form of State College segregation remains is the subject of this column. I compare the State College Diner to my experiences during the Civil Rights Movement in the South where, in 1962, at the age of 14, I participated with two black ministers in a restaurant sit in at a bus terminal in Athens, Georgia. At the time I lived in Atlanta, where blacks and whites could not eat together in the same restaurant, sleep in the same hotel, go to the same bathrooms, attend the same schools, swim in the same pools, or marry each other. Integrated protestors were arrested for praying in white churches.

That year I attended the Ebenezer Baptist Church and watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach a sermon on the spiritual effects of injustice which apply to the owners and patrons of State College’s Diner. The following year I heard Dr. King at the March on Washington say, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’”

Laws are not the solutions to all our problems. The loophole in the ADA that permits the Diner to be inaccessible to the disabled relates to buildings constructed before the ADA went into effect. The law could be changed. But does it need to be changed? If the patrons of the restaurant realized the assault on the dignity of human beings who happen to be unable to walk, the loss of business would force the owners to construct what could be a relatively inexpensive ramp.

If the cost to the business endangers its survival, the community can contribute to the ramp. There could be bake sales at religious institutions. Grant proposals could be written. What is intolerable is the on-going assault to the dignity of those of us who are unable to walk, see, or hear—the assault perpetuated and tolerated by those of you able bodied people who do not realize segregation exists here and now.

Do we really need more laws to protect the disabled and elderly against the numerous daily forms of segregation you impose upon us? Didn’t God give you immortal souls and the injunction to do unto others as you would have others do unto you?

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected]
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Post Script: This election season has been disappointing. It is useful to remember that if we treat each other as human beings we can avoid expensive and unnecessary legislation.

Nevertheless, we must prepare for the next election. A new organization, Disabled and Elderly Informed Voters for Equal Rights (DELIVER), will endorse candidates and support legislation. Voices of Central Pennsylvania and its columnists are not permitted to endorse candidates or legislation due to its nonprofit status.

Meanwhile, this column at Voices of Centrral Pennsylvania provides detailed information on disability and elderly issues not available elsewhere. Medical suppliers, rehabilitation counselors, and others must advertise in Voices. As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”

Elliott’s Erwitt’s photograph of segregated drinking fountains in the US South is widely regarded as one of the best photographs of the Twentieth Century