For each of us there is an awakening. Something that has been tolerated is simply no longer acceptable. Sometimes it is a moment when a reality is suddenly crystal clear. Sometimes it is more of a process, over time. For me, and for many of my high school classmates, it was a process of racial understanding and emerging racial pride that began one fall day.
“I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.”
Played by the school band, that’s what we heard freshman year when we walked into the gym for our first pep rally. Students were singing loudly and enthusiastically as they stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers. The energy in the room was palpable.
“Dixie” was the fight song for my high school, John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, that “Dixie.” The song born in the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s, the song that was the standard for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the song that had come to represent the collective of the Southern states, and the Southern sensibility, in the United States. That “Dixie”.
This was the mid-1960s. Brown v. Board of Education had called for the integration of all public schools about a decade or so earlier, but schools in Virginia were slow to recognize the mandate. In fact, they actively worked against it. When I arrived, John Marshall was still a predominately white school with a small number of black students. Many in the all-white, school administration and many of the white students’ parents had fought against integration. Black people were actively trying to prove that they could fit in. Like most at the time, the black students at John Marshall were Negroes, integrationists, assimilationists. No one wanted to do anything to cause trouble. Black people were trying to gain acceptance in a white world. And on that fall day, the students—white and black—were just kids cheering their football team as the players came into the gym.
We were all children of the cultural South. We all knew the words. By rote, almost everyone sang with little regard for the meaning or essence of the song,
“In Dixie Land, I’ll take my stand,
To live and die in Dixie.”
A traditional fight song for the South, a song of pride, it had probably been the rallying song for John Marshall High from the beginning when the school opened in 1909, just a little over 50 years after the Civil War. No consideration had been given then to any culture other than white and little was offered a little over fifty years later for black students. It is unlikely that anyone—not for a moment—thought this, a school-rallying cry, might be offensive. Did it really matter?
Something about singing the song probably felt wrong from the start, but we went along to get along. Then, one day the words suddenly came into focus. Our consciousness had been raised. The school rallying song did matter. It was symbolic of so much. How could “We Shall Overcome” be the song of the times—more importantly, the anthem of our people—while we continued to sing “Dixie?”
Students asked the administration to stop playing “Dixie.” They were disregarded. Then one day, in our junior year, the black band members—in one catalytic moment—decided to take action. They didn’t refuse to play the song, it could have been played without them. Their action was far more effective, demonstrating the effect that the song was having on us— it was hurtful. When the band director called for “Dixie,” the black band members played other songs, not just one song, many. Cacophony resulted, then silence. That moment of dissonance accomplished what polite requests had failed to do. In that silence was there any racial understanding or compassion? I don’t know, but “Dixie” was no longer the fight song for John Marshall High School.
To learn more about “Dixie,” listen to this episode of the podcast, “Uncivil.” I guarantee you’ll learn something new.