Completion of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., recalls days actually not that long ago in America. Only in knowing those days will the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. be evident. Although personal failings cloud his image, he inspired a process that not only changed life in America but also the way Americans think.
I went to see “The Help.” Set in Jackson, Miss., in the mid-1960s, it is about African-American female domestic servants and their employers, Caucasian women, all homemakers and mothers, from the middle class or slightly above, church-going people.
Because I was born and reared in Nashville, Tenn., with deep, deep roots in the South, bells rang loudly as I watched the film.
When I was young, I knew many families that had black servants. I must say that no white family of my acquaintance ever treated their “help” as shabbily as did the white women in the film. Quite the contrary. But only good hearts prompted those white adults to be kind to their servants. Nothing guaranteed rights, in virtually any instance, for blacks.
I still remember what then was paid to domestic servants in Nashville — $3 a day, plus “car fare,” which, as I remember, was a quarter. No minimum wage, no Social Security, no pension, no health insurance, no paid vacation and no appeal for mistreatment. Hours were fluid, but most “help” were expected at their employer’s home not later than 8 a.m. Responsible for all housekeeping, many had to cook and serve the evening meal and clean up afterward before they left.
Black maids were the eternal baby sitters for white children. It is no wonder, as seen in “The Help,” that generations of white Southerners so deeply loved their black maids. The maids kissed arms stung by bees, listened to the heartbreaking tales of teenage romances gone sour and watched the play in the yard.
Every white mother whom I knew sternly instructed her children to obey the maids. Period.
But equally inflexible was the rule that no black maid could spank a white child.
No white, male or female, ever, ever shook hands with a black — let alone sat at the same table. Blacks never entered the front door. Many houses, especially if built before World War II, had separate toilets for black servants. When a white child reached 16, one sign of passage was being addressed by blacks no longer as “Owen” but “Mister Owen.”
Even back then, I thought it odd that while blacks in the kitchen handled everything the whites ate, many maids wore white cotton gloves to serve the meals, lest their bare hands contaminate the dishes.
Blacks sat at the back of buses. However, if the bus was crowded, and white teenagers boarded, even elderly or pregnant blacks had to surrender their seats to them.
So many African-American women were maids because no other employment was available to them.
Tens of millions of Americans, middle age or older, alive today remember all this. Others cannot imagine it.
Times have changed, thank God! Nevertheless, racial inequities and outright racism still exist. African Americans, far more often than that of Caucasian Americans, live with want and hopelessness.
Change would not have come, frankly, without Martin Luther King Jr.
The Catholic Church uncompromisingly supported change — to assure that African American were accorded the dignity rising from the fact of their humanity. It was one of the proudest moments for Catholicity in this country.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.