When the Internal Revenue Service sent down its famous 11-year-old regulation on segregated private schools' tax- exemptions, I was a student at a segregated private school just outside New Orleans. My school wasn't a seg academy; it was founded in the late '20s, and the boilerplate language of its charter said that it was a school for white boys and girls. So while its purpose was to provide education rather than white education, it was segregated. In that sense, it was at us, as well as at the seg academies, that the regulation was aimed. They were supposed to be hurt by it; we were supposed to change.
In fact, we did change, and so that regulation changed my life and the lives of my friends.
It is, I think, considered a little sweaty now to use the word racism in a straightforward way; everybody thinks that nobody is really that way any more. Well, in my school in the late '60s, many people--maybe most--were racists, and there's no other honest word for them. The nature of Louisiana is that race relations are an important part of black and white people's notions of the place they occupy in the world, so they are always an obsessive topic of conversation there--especially in a time when they're changing. The kids in my school talked about blacks more than anything else, and in a manner that is difficult to bring alive today because it is very dated and very unpleasant.
The kids called black people "niggers," or "the niggers," to connote an organized, unruly mob, or just "them," as in, "Would you ever touch one of them?" The remote possibility of your sister's becoming sexually involved with one of "them" was, somehow, the subject of constant vigilant concern. The question of whether "they" should be allowed to vote was debated in the tones with which, say, the question of resumption of the SALT talks might be debated today. If you advocated integration, the common response from an adult was a patient explanation of how African civilization had never developed the wheel; from a kid, the response was to be asked why, if you loved niggers so much, you didn't marry one.
The first time we played a football game against a team with a couple of black players, one guy wore a white sheet at the pep rally the night before, and he and a friend of his played the game wearing surgical gloves--"so we won't have to touch 'em," as he put it. When the editor of the school paper wrote an editorial suggesting that the school's charter be changed, my mother wrote him a passionate, Emma Goldmanesque letter complimenting him on his steely courage. I know it must sound crazy, but that's the way it was.
When the IRS ruling came down, the school sent out a brief note to all the parents explaining that the charter had been changed to make it possible for donations to the school to remain deductible. The tone, as I recall it, was that this was a minor procedural matter rather than the dawning of a new age, and as a result there was no public squawking about it.
But it really was the dawning of a new age. The school actually integrated a couple of years later, though not very much; and even sooner than that, everybody stopped talking about "the niggers." Exactly why, I don't know. In the same year as the IRS regulations, New Orleans elected a pro-civil rights mayor, Moon Landrieu, who filled the city government with popular black department heads. That and the regulation had a cumulative effect. In the little world of our school, the IRS ruling set the wheels in motion for an integrationist group that would have been shouted down had it proposed integration out of the blue to come to dominance more subtly.
Another reason was that, as southern historians love to point out, when it comes down to it the white-collar and blue-collar whites in a place like Louisiana have always hated each other as well as blacks. Our school was white- collar and the seg academies were blue-collar. We played some of them in football, too, and it was plain that they were different from us. They were out in the country, and the kids' fathers had long sideburns and the mothers put their hair up in curlers. The IRS smoked out our snobbery. We didn't want to be in a category that consisted solely of us and the seg academies. We were community leaders who cared about education and knew about worldly matters like tax planning. If we could be segregated along with everything else, fine; if we had to choose between segregation and respectability, we'd choose respectability.
I can remember watching the Senate roll-call vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act on television and knowing that this meant Congress and the president were now full-steam ahead for integration, so when the IRS said that our school couldn't be a charitable institution as long as it was segregated, it didn't strike me as government-by-regulation. Anyway, in Louisiana at that time, the operative distinction as far as the law went was federal versus state, not court decisions versus legislation. Any directive even hinting of integration could only have emanated from Washington, because the electorate, the legislature and the courts of our state were pretty well in tune with one another, and took the opposite view. Perhaps the initiative on private schools' tax exemptions should have come from President Nixon rather than the courts. But it's clear to me that by doing what they did, when they did, the courts and IRS caused a small change for the better to take place.