Growing Up – the Sixties in Mississippi

The beginning years of the 1960s marked the end of my childhood and disclosed an outside world looming with conflict. I really didn’t want to face that world directly during my teen years.

News events were troubling, but their impact could be largely avoided. The prolonged transition from adolescent to adult that accompanies education aimed at a profession – in my case, medicine – as well as questions of dating and social life absorbed my interest.

I did encounter questions about science and religion. Like a cloud over the terrain of education, family, and friendships floated a quiet tension between differing worldviews, personified in my mother and father (described here). But they clearly loved each other and loved their children more, leaving questions like heaven and hell, authority, skepticism, and others largely unaddressed. Only in hindsight do I recognize what a great gift that was.

Someday I knew the outside world would break through my protective dome. Then I would need to make choices and declare where I stood. Feeling inadequate to the task through most of the sixties, I deferred and kept to studies, friends and faith groups, tennis, some basketball and other sports, and books.

In a meadow just north of the city limits of Jackson, Mississippi, our house stood alone, built from steel rebar and poured concrete, large enough to accommodate 10 children and purposefully strong enough to survive a nearby hydrogen bomb hit, if the Soviets ever decided to push the button and if they deemed Jackson a worthy target. My older brother Robert wrote a short story for the high school literary magazine about our family living for weeks in the muddy crawl space under the house following a nuclear attack. In the 6th or 7th grade, as I recall, a newspaper for younger students called The Weekly Reader introduced us to the word “containment” – that is, containment of communism in places far from home like Viet Nam. Later in Civics class we learned about the Domino Theory, the importance of stopping the chain reaction of governments falling to communism.

The civil rights struggle appeared on television news almost daily. My connection to the black community extended only as far as appreciating our maid, but I quietly agreed with my mother that the Bible was on their side. Courage and public decision were questions avoided, as I stayed silent with fearful incipient admiration for those who risked and sometimes lost their lives. I was ignorant, to some extent willfully, of the sanctioned brutal repression of blacks in Mississippi. The first black person near my own age whose name I ever learned was James Chaney, and that was from the newspaper after he was murdered in Neshoba County along with two young white men from New York City.

When the riot happened at Ole Miss, I was a sophomore in high school, two people shot to death in Oxford and President Kennedy sending the Federal marshals and U.S. Army there to ensure that James Meredith could enroll and attend the university. Somehow my oldest brother David, already an Ole Miss Rebel, learned the location of the army’s trash dump, which we visited, and we opened some cardboard cylinders that once held tear gas canisters and sniffed the tear gas.

In Mississippi the liberals were Republicans then; I went to one meeting, but my interest turned in other directions. About a year after the trouble at Ole Miss, Kennedy was assassinated. I was in study period in the high school auditorium when the news arrived. A few guys cheered, and our teacher Mr. Curtis Hall, a former U.S. Marine, became upset and lectured all of us for the rest of the period on respect for our country and our president. I remember walking around the backyard after supper, looking up at the contrasting clouds and sky, as a dry November wind pushed the clouds overhead faster than I had ever seen. I went inside and wrote a free verse poem, writing for the first time from the heart, something about history and danger and the importance of it all – kept that poem in my desk drawer for years but eventually lost it to great regret.

A premonition stumbled forward that someday a crucial question, or several, might break through the protective boundaries of my life. How then would I answer? Would I stay in the shelter of familiar dogma or pure faith, or would I break free and risk becoming an outcast, a wanderer hunting for something I could not name, bent on discovery and exposed to doubt and dispute? Courage, prudence, rashness, cowardice – what would my choices reveal?

But a recurring fear was that decisions were not mine to make at all. Modern science of the mid-20th century taught that the path of life for every person was set by genes and environment. Old time religion told me that only one decision mattered, to put all my faith in God and the Bible just as taught by my church and resolve never to stray from that designated narrow road. I did not want to surrender to either option, but what alternatives could there be?


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Header image:  The concrete house on Meadow Road in Jackson, Mississippi. Family photo.


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