A Thirteen Year Old Moral Failure

Excerpt from The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family.

I was 13 years old when cracks began to appear in my world. It was 1963, and I was a skinny, desultory, and intimidated member of the Mighty Trojan Marching Band of Millington Central High School, an all-white public institution. I sat on the rear bench seat of a yellow school bus on a Friday evening as we drove through a Negro neighborhood in Memphis on our way to play a football game with another all-white school. I clutched a battered baritone horn in my lap and adjusted my ill-fitting black wool uniform, redolent with the Friday night sweat of generations of band members before me, and straightened the deteriorating loops of gold braid adorning my shoulders.

Black children played in the hard-packed dirt yards of the tin-roofed, unpainted row houses we drove past, and their elders sat in rocking chairs on their front porches overlooking the scene as dusk fell and the bluish glow of mercury streetlights suffused the street. In the seats in front of me, the other boys in our band cranked open the windows, stuck their heads out, and began screaming at the children and the elderly Negroes on their porches: “Nigger, nigger, nigger! Yard apes! Baboons!” On the front seat of our bus, seated next to the driver, was our teacher and band director, Mr. Nersesian, a short and swarthy Armenian known as a killer disciplinarian with a wooden paddle taller than he and drilled with holes to better suck back the flesh of an offending buttock on an energetic backswing. Mr. Nersesian kept his eyes steadfastly trained on the road ahead, ignoring the screaming boys behind him.

I slunk down in my seat, ashamed and cringing in my Trojan uniform. I hated what they were saying and doing, but they were bigger, louder, and more self-confident than I was, and I was afraid to object.

A few weeks later, I stood in the hallway outside the door of my eighth grade English class. A dozen feet away from me the first black children ever to attempt to integrate my school, a boy and a girl, stood with their backs against the wall next to the drinking fountain. Between us, ranging up and down the hallway was a mob of several score of my classmates, many of them hollering “Nigger! Nigger! Go home, niggers! Go back to the jungle!” Boys from my class came out of the restroom with little plastic sandwich bags full of urine, hurling their bags at the black children.

I was rooted to my spot, crying uncontrollably, straining to see the black children through my tears, noting the terror in their dark eyes and how they held onto each other and how the boy shifted his body and held up his hand to ward off the missiles thrown at them. I had never been so conscious of my sinful nature, of my cowardliness, of my uselessness. I knew my silence made me as guilty in the sight of God as my classmates.