In those days we ventured across that side of Opelousas, La., and its staid boundaries--a railroad track to the north and J.S. Clark High, the black school, to the south--only when searching for an alternate route to Interstate 10 or when looking for mischief with the blacks who lived in its hodgepodge of shanties and housing projects.
This was in 1967, when I was 9 years old and blind to almost everything but the color of a man's skin. It was also the year my father took me in his pickup truck through the busted streets of that bleak and largely impoverished section of town to see Miller Chevis run the 880 at J.S. Clark's Annual Relay Carnival.
Back then, I knew very little about the black high school, except that it had the parish's first air-conditioned lunch room and there were some proud, pounding hearts and plenty of back-slapping among the St. Landry Parish school board members for their charitable vote in finally putting the black man ahead of the white.
But the only time I ever saw great numbers of blacks was on Saturday, when they shopped at J.W. Low 5 & 10 downtown and gathered near the Post Office to watch the buses come and go at the Greyhound station on Landry Street. It all seems so distant and benign now, but only 16 years ago, I went with my father every Saturday morning to get my shoes shined at Garbo's Barber Shop and to hear stories about the atrocities we would suffer in this country should the school system integrate.
Through Garbo's picture window we saw the blacks stooped against monuments to the Confederate dead. Farther down the street, at the Delta Movie Theater, their line for tickets formed at a side door, "the black door," where they climbed a dilapidated staircase to the balcony and watched even Hollywood from the shadows. The whites congregated in the plush lobby, eating JuJu beans and getting set to rush for seats in the grand theater. Invariably, the old barbers at Garbo's ceased their clipping and the eldest, pointing out the window, announced, "They're taking over, Johnny. Them coloreds is taking over."
Only now do I understand why those barbers and many of their customers, sitting high and mighty on a refurbished train depot bench, spoke with such passion when addressing my father. Miller Chevis, only 13 years old then, was the black kid who had pedaled his bike across town one cold winter afternoon to talk to my father, a coach and civics teacher at Opelousas High, about trying out for his cross country track team.
It was up to my old man to decide whether Miller transferred to OHS in the upcoming fall and became not only the first black to participate in sports at my father's school, but the first black to play on a white high school team in the state. "Sometimes when I look back," Miller said this past week on the telephone, "I wonder if I wasn't out of my mind."
I had never met Miller Chevis, though his name was tossed around a lot by my parents over highballs each blessed end of the day. Besides Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, the only three black faces I knew by name belonged to our family maid, Dee Dete, her mother Alice and a butcher named Ferdinand who worked in the slaughterhouse at my grandmother's country store.
That journey to J.S. Clark--sitting shotgun in the cab and with my nose pressed against the window--was the first grand adventure in my life. I suppose if the sky had been overcast and grumbling, foreboding doom, the atmosphere would have added to the story I would later relate to the kids on my block. But it was a beautiful spring day, alive with azaleas and crepe myrtles rustled by a cool, gentle norther. My father, pounding the floor pedals and shifting the gears of that ridiculous old pickup, regarded the trip into the black side of town as nonchalantly as he would a trip to 7-Eleven for a bag of picnic ice.
I used to think that my father, a modest man who always skipped over the national news to read the sports page, was something of a courageous and stout-hearted pioneer for daring to attend the relay carnival, an event (I always heard) never before seen by a white man. His brother George, a liberal-minded intellectual who had studied north of the Mason-Dixon line before coming home to teach English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, only 30 miles away, had thrown an interracial party at his home one Christmas. A few days later, radicals burned a giant wooden cross on his front lawn, protesting his participation in the civil rights movement.
And now, by spending his afternoon watching a black kid run around a cinder track, my old man seemed to be no less tragic than my uncle. Weighing my role in this adventure, I figured I was destined for a place in history, too, if only by paying two bits to sit with my father in a stadium of blacks. Finally, I would break through the wedge of racial segregation that split my town and my life in two. My story belonged on the Delta's silver screen, premiering on a day when the blacks were allowed to descend from their Siberia and share arm rests with us white folks.
It's obvious to me now, however, that my father and I would have been only extras in this picture and Miller Chevis the hero. I doubt that he knew what he was getting into, though today he swears he would do it all over again if the circumstances were the same. He wasn't out to advance the black cause, or test Brown vs. Board of Education, or anything nearly so loaded with political implications. He just wanted to run track for my old man.
Miller's father was killed in the Korean War and, soon after, his mother left Opelousas to start all over in Houston. His grandparents took him in and raised him, but, during the summer, he lived with his mother and trained by running after cars on the busy city streets. "Every day when I came in from working out, I'd tell my mother, 'I'm going to the white school, Ma. And I'm going to be the best.' "
He didn't know any white people, not well anyway, and he said meeting my father had "given me the worst case of nerves I'd ever had. I was scared to death riding my bike out to see him. I almost got sick on the side of the road. But I had to go. In my heart, I knew I had no choice."
The year before, Miller had bounced around town with a bad crowd. Their leader, one of Miller's closest childhood friends, stole a case of explosives off a train and ended up going to prison for 13 years. Miller himself had assaulted his reading teacher at Northeast Junior High after she "spanked me with a paddle and told me not to look at her that way when being corrected."
Everybody said his middle name was Trouble, his last Chevis, and together they would lead him to hell. Besides running track for the white school across town, his only other goal in life was staying out of reform school. It always seemed impossible for him not to run, whether to or away from something. "But I never ran for time," he said. "I only ran to win."
American Legion baseball games notwithstanding, going to see Miller run that spring day in '67 was the single most memorable sporting event of my childhood. I was so impressed with the reception the black crowd gave my father and me that I spent most of the day shaking the hands of young black boys and explaining my presence. "We came to see Miller run," I said and pointed at the tall, raw-boned boy stretching on the infield. They usually said, "We did, too, white person."
I only wish Miller had been as well received at OHS when he reported in the fall. On his first day, an entire row of his classmates stood up and dispersed about the room when he chose a desk at their center. In the cafeteria, he selected tables at random, but no matter where he sat, he was always alone. "They'd just up and go somewhere else," he said. "There were whole days when I'd go without saying a word."
Looking back, I wonder what greater sufferings Miller Chevis would have been subjected to at OHS had he not excelled as an athlete. He played both wide receiver and cornerback on the football team, started as a guard on the basketball team and, in track, was a high school all-America in the mile and sprint relays. I can still hear the voice of my father, booming above the roar of the crowd as his best sprinter raced around the tartan track. "Run, Miller, run," he shouted. "Run, Miller, run."
Bragging rights were mine, for I proclaimed myself his "discoverer." I told my friends, "I saw him run before anybody else, me and my daddy did." And we would volley back and forth in a Yes-I-did-No-you-didn't schoolboy war of braggadocio.
Before the OHS Tiger Relays, then one of the biggest track meets in the South, a representative from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met with Miller at his home and asked him to boycott the race. It was 1969, the first year of total integration in my hometown, and the school board had denied the black students the right to stage their senior prom in the high school gymnasium. The white senior prom was to be held in a downtown hotel ballroom.
"The blacks in town were saying I was eating off a silver platter," Miller said. "The whites were saying I was getting paid by the NAACP to cause a big commotion. Only the guys on the team knew the hell I was going through."
The NAACP representative was black, an attorney in town. He stood there, under the bright sun, ordering Miller Chevis not to run. If he refused to compete, the man argued, none of the other black athletes would run and the school board would be embarrassed. That could be the bargaining power the blacks needed to get the school board to reconsider their stand on the prom issue.
"I looked him in the eyes," Miller said, "then looked at the car he drove and how he was dressed. Then I looked at what I had. I had nothing but the chance to run. And he wanted to take that away from me. I pointed to the road and told him to leave me alone. I was running. Nobody would keep me from running."
I always felt guilty telling that story to my friends, for I knew that Miller was no less proud of the color of his skin than I was of mine. Because he always won, I never considered the many battles Miller Chevis fought while winning race after race against his white opponents. Whenever my father and his team traveled to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, belligerent rivals often threw Coke and whiskey bottles at him. Once, after a track meet in Ruston, a woman ran out on the infield and spit in Miller's face. "I had beaten her son in the 880," he said. "She called me a nigger and told me to get back home." Moments later, he stepped up on the victory stand, put his hand over his heart and bowed to the predominantly white crowd.
Miller is 31 now, a policeman at Angola State Prison. He guards prisoners--thieves, rapists, murderers--who shout his name through iron bars. He says both the blacks and the whites call him "nigger." But all day his dreams anchor themselves in his legs and he itches to shed his gun and uniform and sprint out of the high iron gates, into the sun. "I can deal with people now," he said. "Race, religion, whatever. After what I saw and went through, I can handle anything now."