Alan Paton on America's task

This is the final installment of a chapter from Alan Paton's work in progress, the second volume of his autobiography, to be published by Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. It continues his account of visiting the United States from South Africa three decades ago, before the civil rights gains of later years. WHILE I was staying with Bennie and Sadie Mays at Morehouse, I thought I would go on Sunday to church, and I discussed with him whether I should go alone, or whether we should go together. I may say that Bennie had a quality of fearlessness. I am sure that he was brave too, but he had this additional quality, which is legendarily attributed to such persons as Julius Caesar, Horatio Nelson, and our own South African General Smuts. Yet he considered very carefully the question as to whether he and I should go to an Episcopalian church together, such churches in Atlanta being exclusively ``white.''

``I don't want an incident,'' he said. ``One of my students went to a white church to see what would happen, and sat down near the middle of church. Soon after, he was asked to go to the gallery or to leave, but he declined to do either. Another man then approached him, showed a police badge, and repeated the suggestion. Because it was a policeman, the young man followed him but would not stay in the church. As he walked away, the policeman said, `Why did you do such a thing?' `I'm a Christian,' said the boy, `and I wanted to see if I could worship in a white Christian church.' `Will you come and sit in front with me?' asked the policeman. So they returned and sat together in the front part of the church. After the service several people shook hands with the young man, and expressed their pleasure at having seen him there. So ended happily this strange experiment. As far as I know, it led to nothing further.''

Bennie decided that he would go to church with me, not so that we could demonstrate, but because I was his guest and he did not want to let me go alone, just for the sake of avoiding any appearance of a demonstration. We set out for All Saints' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, white. Outside the door he had a last word with me. ``If I'm asked to move, what do we do, move or leave?'' ``Leave,'' I said.

It was a wonderful service. It was Palm Sunday, and the church was full and the congregation reverent. The rector spoke of Abraham Lincoln as one who had saved a nation, though himself he could not save. The choir sang ``Were you there when they crucified my Lord?''

Outside people came up to us and said they were glad to have seen us at their church. Some of them knew that the black man was Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College. Then he introduced me, and still others came up. In the end we held a kind of court in the street. I have not yet mentioned that Bennie Mays was one of the few Negro Americans living in 1954 whose father and mother had been born into slavery, his father in 1856 and his mother in 1862. His mother never learned to read or write, but the slave master's son took his father ``down in the woods'' and taught him. In those days it was against the law to teach a slave to read and write. Bennie's home was not entirely happy. At times his father drank too much, and became quarrelsome and violent, often towards the mother. At the age of 12 the boy made a vow that he would never touch liquor. His mother was a deeply religious woman, and her influence over him was immense. It was she who held the home together, a miracle that I have often seen in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It must be a miracle that is worldwide.

Bennie told me that I must not deduce too much from our visit to All Saints. He was the only Negro there, he was making a special visit, he was known to a good many members of the congregation, and was accompanied by a white person. He could have added, but did not, that no one looked less like a demonstrator than he. He was a grave and handsome man, very black, with hair going white, devoid of all pretence or pretensions. I said goodbye to them with regret, tempered by the knowledge that I would see Bennie again later in the year, at the meeting of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Ill. Those who want to know more about him can read his splendid autobiography, ``Born to Rebel.''

I close this chapter with some words that I have found in my diary of the journey for Collier's magazine. I do not know who wrote them, but I think it may have been myself.

A message to those whites who fear the desegregated school in places like Beaufort, S. C., and yet who wish the Negro well.

In 20 years time you will laugh at all your fears. Your son or your daughter will be privileged to be part of this great forward movement of the human race. They will be privileged to have been educated with the first generation of the emancipated. Perhaps the Negro whose voice trembles when he speaks of the sins of the white man in Africa is really berating the white man in America, but that he cannot allow himself, because he has based his whole case on the American creed. We must go further and conquer his hatred of the white man in Africa. Otherwise he will not help America in her world task. And America's world task is not to free black men, but to free all men from the evils of race and color morality.

These words, by whomever they were written, are prophetic. On Oct. 20 1977, my wife Anne and I were given a lunch at Auburn University, Alabama, after I had given an address to the university community. At lunch I sat next to a senior white Alabaman, in a company of white and black Americans.

I said to him, ``I was here in the South in 1946, and again in 1954 but it wasn't like this then. How have you coped with all these changes?''

He said to me, ``I've still got my prejudices, but thank God my children don't have them.''

Alan Paton

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Alan Paton on America's task
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today