The Pretty Blonde with the Sweat Stain: An Encounter with Liberalism
My experience with liberalism goes back to the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester. I had some liberal friends, such as history graduate student Joel Blatt, who had a passion for getting information and reflecting on ideas, but such individuals were the exceptions in that political group. Most of the liberals I encountered, especially as the War in Viet Nam heated up, were intellectually robotic. They knew what they knew, and they weren't interested in considering anything else.
In the summer of 1970, I returned to Rochester to complete my doctoral dissertation. I'd been teaching for three years at William and Mary in Virginia, and I was moving on to an assistant professorship at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Since the University of Rochester had many students from the Northeast, my acceptance of jobs in the border South and (shudder!) Deep South were regarding as daring -- if not mystifying. One fellow graduate student, a New Yorker, told me: "I don't think I'd go any farther South than . . . Jersey."
I'd been away from Rochester since July of 1967, so there were some new graduate students inhabiting the English Lit room at the top of Rush-Rhees Library. Used for classes, the room was also a gathering place for those who wanted to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes (!!!), and gab about our discontents and the bad job market.
At one point, I met a young woman there. She was blonde, pretty, and smart, although perhaps a little dogmatic. One warm July day -- I doubt we had air-conditioning in our gab room -- she and I talked about my vocational choices. I noticed that she didn't shave her underarms (common in those days), which I regarded as producing a sexy look. Also, as a result of Rochester's hot and humid summers, she had a sweat stain (just one for some reason) in the right "pit" area of her blouse.
I told her I'd taken a job at the University of Georgia. She gave me a look that combined amazement and horror. I don't recall exactly what she said in response, but basically she questioned how I could do such a thing.
I told her that Athens, Georgia wasn't exactly like the Birmingham, Alabama where Sheriff "Bull" Connor had turned police dogs and fire hoses on Black demonstrators. In fact, I bragged that my two young children would be attending schools that were completely integrated. Of course, the integration was new, the result of federal decrees that had ended the old segregated system.
I told her, "The student body in each school will be 57% white, 43% Negro [a word that was still acceptable in those innocent days]. And the teaching staff is also integrated on about those percentages."
She looked at me and said -- I'm not making this up -- "Well, I'm sure you're wrong!" She was talking about the percentages I gave.
At this point, some other people entered the room, and our conversation came to a hasty conclusion. I never had an opportunity to expand on our discussion. I assume she was saying that I was misinformed about the racial ratios, which I was not, or that I was making it up, which I was not.
In general, students at the University of Rochester had been strongly supportive of the Civll Rights Movement, and I was among those supporters. Students, a few, had joined some of the marches in the South, including the one at Selma. We regularly had leaders in the fight for integration, including John Lewis, speak about their efforts. One U of R professor, William Gilman, got arrested at a sit-in.
However, despite all our support for integration in the South, we weren't doing that great a job at the University of Rochester. In my last year as an undergraduate, the number of Black Amercan students added up to a grand total of FOUR. In my seven years at the institution, I had exactly one Black professor (Dr. Dawes)..
At the University of Georgia, the situation was much more promising. The integration of that university had taken place in 1964, with the admission (under federal pressure) of two students, one of whom was Charlayne Hunter (later Hunter-Gault), who became one of the nation's top journalists.
By 1970, there were approximately 200 Black students at the University of Georgia. Such students had been nearly invisible at the University of Rochester, but they were a real presence at UGA. In the one class I taught at the University of Rochester, I'd had Black student (Joseph Sewer). In my classes at Georgia, I regularly had several. Among the Literature graduate students I knew at Rochester, perhaps 40 or so, the number of Blacks was zero.
I don't know exactly how many Black students are there now, but based on a fairly recent visit, I'd guess the number is in the thousands. In 1970, there were no Black football players there -- with athletic integration beginning with the freshamn class in 1971. Now, most of the football players on athletic scholarships are Black.
Of courser, the pretty blonde with the sweat stain would have taken all these positive developments for a mirage. She "knew" the Deep South, even though she'd never been there -- and probably never would be.