For some time now, I've been reflecting on the astonishing visit of our president and first lady, who chose Asheville to enjoy a brief respite from the unbelievably trying duties of the office of president and the leadership of the free world.
It's significant that these two people of color chose to stay at the Grove Park Inn, where for two days they were treated like royalty. As they passed through our streets en route to various activities, residents greeted them with cheers and great excitement. It reminded me of how far we've come, as a city and a nation, in terms of racial and cultural relations.
But then when I see and hear the latest political blather from Tea Party darling Rand Paul, I'm not so sure.
The Grove Park Inn, a progressive local business that's one of Asheville's biggest employers, is a perfect venue for tracking the changes that have taken place in the continuing march of our human-rights parade.
Consider two historic photos that hang in the hotel. The first depicts the men who built this magnificent, world-renowned structure in a single year. A good number of them are black men who, once they'd hung the inn's front doors, could never pass through them again unless they were carrying bags or performing some other menial task.
The second shows the hostelry's inaugural banquet in July of 1913, attended by an all-white, all male audience that was addressed by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate who served as secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson.
For the next 30 years, the inn operated as a "restricted hotel" that did not accept Jews or people of color.
In 1942, the U.S. government leased the inn to serve as an internment camp for diplomats from Japan, Italy and Germany. True, they were surrounded by barbed-wire fences and Marine guards, but otherwise they were treated as dignitaries.
It's shocking to realize that even though the inn housed our worst enemies (including Nazis) during the war, when it was returned to civilian use in 1945, Jews still weren't accepted as guests. This was true until the mid-1950s, and blacks were not admitted till after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — not even those who'd risked their lives defending our country against these murderous regimes.
Racism was a way of life during those times. Members of the Jewish community, themselves victims of discrimination, rarely stood up to publicly challenge segregation and racism for fear of the consequences.
President Obama's caravan passed right by the beautiful house at the corner of Charlotte Street and Sunset Parkway — the former home of a virulent racist group called the Silver Shirts. Active during the late 1930s and early '40s, they were first cousins of the Brown Shirts and the German American Bund. And the Ku Klux Klan had a modest presence in Buncombe County even into the late '60s.
In fact, Southerners of my generation — raised with separate water fountains and bathrooms and back-of-the-bus seating for "Negroes" — are recovering racists. Believe me, it takes more than a 12-step program to erase decades of cultural programming, and to this day I find myself fighting automatic negative reflexes on an almost daily basis. Yet I realize that for most of those born after 1950, and for many people raised up North, those attitudes are inconceivable.
I find it discouraging that so many sincere, hard-working, patriotic, caring people still cannot get their heads around the idea that a man of color has been elected to the highest office in the land.
Many have joined the Tea Party movement, one of whose emerging stars, Rand Paul, has taken several retro cultural positions that would take us right back to those discriminatory times. While he abhors racism, Paul apparently sees nothing wrong with allowing private businesses and clubs to exclude whoever they choose, on the theory that associating with one's own kind is a "human right." Why should these folks have to endure people whose race, religion, politics or economic status offends them?
But even if we're not moved by the immorality of this position, we must at least understand the economic ramifications.
I remember an incident in the early 1960s, when a highly qualified young man with an Ivy League degree was on the verge of getting an important job with one of the local banks. At the last minute, however, they found out that he was Jewish and very apologetically explained that they conducted a lot of their business and entertained clients at the two prominent local country clubs. Because both clubs refused to accept people of the Jewish faith, he couldn't be hired.
Historically, the white, Anglo-Saxon majority operated most restricted facilities, including restaurants, hotels and country clubs. Lack of access meant then (and would mean again now) that members of excluded minorities would not be able to get jobs or have equal access to businesses, industries, banks and even municipal institutions.
What a great tool for denying not only African-Americans but our burgeoning legal Hispanic population, Asians, Native Americans et al. a level playing field!
I was taught in the military that once the bullet leaves the gun, it has no friends. Today, our country is targeted by dangerous extremists who are no respecters of race, creed, color or politics. We must come together to defend ourselves.
This country simply can't afford a return to the politics of exclusion, even if it represents a learned cultural behavior from our past. For everyone's benefit, we must each find a way to enroll in our own personal 12-step program.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southerners of my generation — raised with separate water fountains and bathrooms and back-of-the-bus seating for "Negroes" — are recovering racists.