Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Retired Houston Minister: "If I Vote for Obama, I Will Be Over My Prejudice for Sure"

A retired Houston minister and his wife, who both grew up in Port Arthur in the heyday of Jim Crow segregation--of schools, public restrooms and even water fountains--told Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg they've had to pray hard over supporting their party's first black nominee for president. But they say that prayer has healed them of their prejudice--with a little help from Joe Biden's convention speech. The complete column follows.

Charles Bowers isn't proud of his prejudice.

But the self-described Yellow Dog Democrat readily admits that his deeply rooted notions of race once made it hard for him to support his party's first black nominee for president.

"Frankly," the 76-year-old retired pastor from Tomball wrote me in an e-mail a couple months ago, "I was raised during the days of segregation and am not ready for a black family in the White House."

Then came the interesting part: "But I am praying for a way out of my prejudice and think I just may be over it. If I vote for Obama, I will be over my prejudice for sure."

Unlike many white voters struggling with the same issue behind closed doors, in hushed tones in beauty parlors, or in cafes among like-minded company, Bowers and his wife of 56 years, Katherine, invited me into their home to talk openly about how their views have evolved.

In the Bowers' living room, lovingly lined with shelves of Katherine's collectibles of cats and porcelain furniture, Charles relaxed in a T-shirt and shorts on a leather couch, sipping a Diet Pepsi as he prepared for Barack Obama's convention speech in Mile High Stadium.

For hours, the couple talked about the three children they'd raised, their love of gardening and God (they attend the Church of Christ), and their work ministering in various congregations, prisons and hospitals. Charles worked in sales for Nestlé before attending a seminary in Lubbock in the 1960s to become a pastor.

And they told me about growing up in Port Arthur during segregation, where everything from water fountains to public restrooms to schools was divided along color lines. Charles remembers using the N-word like any other word, before he knew it was bad. They weren't ready for desegregation, but they came to accept it.

Charles can still recall the first time a black man reached out his hand for him to shake. He was 17 and not sure what to do.

Katherine tries to explain: If you're taught you can't drink after someone, or go to school with them, how do you know it's OK to touch their hand? To this day, she remembers the first black person who waited on her in a department store.

"I mean, how wild is that? To know how the world is today, to know that was 56 years ago, and I still remember," she said.

But really, her husband said a short time later, he believes most of America is over "the black problem."

"I don't. Hello!" Katherine protests.

"Well, the young people in general. It may not be over for people our age. But we're about dead," he said, laughing.

"I agree,"said his 74-year-old wife. "But people our age are still prejudiced."

"And they need to get that out of their lives," he said. "Because it's a different world."

Charles believes he shed many of his negative notions of blacks at the Sunset International Bible Institute, where he came to regard some of the blacks studying with him as "brothers in Christ."

But he and his wife still struggle with some stereotypes, which they attribute to black "culture," not color. And Charles admits that at first, the idea of a black man, and his black family, in the White House threatened him.

"Not anymore, it doesn't. But it did for a while," Charles said. "That's something that's hard for my generation to put inside their heads."

Some of their doubts were stoked by a barrage of e-mail, which they say come from Republican friends and acquaintances.

Some include racist jokes, one suggesting the need to paint the White House black if the Obamas get in, another mockingly dispelling a rumor that the Rose Garden will be replaced by a watermelon patch.

Others distort Obama's family ties to Islam, suggesting he's a closet Muslim, even though he grew up in a secular household before joining a Christian church and being baptized two decades ago.

But Charles and Katherine both say they've come around to supporting Obama, mostly by listening to him. As Democrats, they naturally agree with him on more issues than with Republican John McCain. They believe in Obama's message of change. Katherine likes his Kennedy-esque call for Americans to give back to their country.

But Charles said Joe Biden's convention speech gave him the nudge he needed. Biden, that is, and the Man Upstairs.

I asked them what advice they'd have for others struggling with whether to vote for Obama because of his race.

"The best thing is to pray about it," Charles said.

His wife is convinced that some, even some church-goers she knows, are incapable, or unwilling to move beyond the prejudice they've always known. But she believes there's hope for those like her, who want to heal.

"They need to realize we're living in a changed world," she said. "And color should not be an issue in this world anymore.

"I think that's the best advice you could give anybody. ...We shouldn't be attacking color anymore. We ought to be beyond that. We really should."

1 comment:

Brian said...

Great article. Thanks for sharing it. I wonder how many other folks their age are struggling with this very issue.