Cowards All

I got my first taste of hate and bigotry at age 11 when the school board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, voted to close the public schools rather than integrate under a federal court order.

Instead, the cowards on that school board held a secret ballot to close the public schools and open a private, all-white institution in its place. The vote wasn’t unanimous but because no one on the board was willing to stand up and say how they voted, no one knew for sure what ballot any member cast.

But the schools closed and the white boys and girls of Prince Edward County went to school in church basements, the local VFW Hall and even private homes while the black children went without an education for 15 years.

I wrote a class term paper about the school closings, describing, as best an 11-year-old could, my revulsion over what had happened. My teacher suggested I submit it to The Farmville Herald, the local paper. They liked it. The day after it was published, three kids ambushed me in an alley, threw a pillow case over my head and kicked and beat me until I could hardly breathe.

“Take that you nigger-loving pansy,” one of them said over and over as he kicked my rib cage.

While my bruises and cracked ribs mended, a classmate identified the three. Fully healed, I went looking for payback. Some friends offered to help return the favor to the trio in the same manner – a pillow case and an anonymous beating but I decided to confront each one-on-one, face-to-face.

The first ended up with blood gushing from a broken nose, the second lying on the ground screaming and holding his balls. The third could only drink milk shakes through a straw for three months until they took the wires out of his jaw. As he lay on the ground, unable to talk, I leaned down and whispered: “Guess what coward. This pansy just whipped your ass.”

The school suspended me for two weeks, but it was worth it. They had it coming, they saw it coming and there wasn’t a damn thing any one of them could do to stop it.

And I learned a valuable lesson on that day 44 years ago. Those who preach hate and bigotry the loudest are often cowards who hide their faces and strike anonymously. When faced down, they cower and cry.

Several years later, as a young reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, I ran into the same cowardice under a collection of white sheets. The Ku Klux Klan tried to flex its muscles in Franklin County. I wrote several stories about their activities and was covering one of their meetings when a big, hulking figure, his faced cloaked behind that stupid-looking white hood, sought me out.

“You God-damned nigger-lover,” he screamed. “I read what you wrote. Why don’t you go back to your nigger and kike buddies and leave real Americans alone.”

I looked at him and laughed.

“Real brave, aren’t you, bellowing like a stuck hog and hiding behind that white sheet. If you’re so damned proud of who you are, take off that hood. I like to see a man’s face before I take him out.”

He backed away: Just another coward afraid to stand up to the light.

Today, those who preach hate and bigotry don’t need white sheets. They can hide on the Internet and spout their bile in chat rooms, bulletin boards and through emails.

We get emails every day from these cowards, spewing their hate but never seeming to have the guts to sign their names. Too many showcase their ignorance by limiting their missives to a half-dozen cuss words and racial epithets. The amount of hate that spills from these people seems to be inversely proportional to the limitations of their vocabulary and their spelling ability.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about an old friend, a bi-sexual woman who died, leaving behind a husband and children.

Of the 500+ emails received over the column, more than 400 were filled with hate.

“So your lesbo girlfriend died. Good riddance,” wrote someone who signed the email All-American Patriot.

“Serves her right,” said another, signed God-Fearing Heterosexual. “She probably died of AIDS. May she burn in Hell.”

While the majority of people who frequent Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms are reasoned, hard-working folks who have well-argued opinions on subjects, too many bulletin boards have been ruined by the hate mongers, the name callers, the racists, the homophobes and the bigots. And I have yet to see one of these bile-belching cowards use their real names.

It’s easy to be brave when you don’t have to sign your name to what you say. It’s easy to talk big when you can hide behind a tough-sounding screen name.

But any hate monger, racist, homophobe or bigot who doesn’t have guts enough to crawl out from under their rocks, white sheets or anonymous email or screen names is, and always will be, a coward.