DAVID E. SHIVERS: Forgetting the past leads to repeating it

GUEST COMMENTARY: It is understandable that the Arctic Bear symbol is a painful one for some

With regards to recent letters and Squawkbox comments criticizing Carlton Fletcher and his column about the elderly black woman and her unpleasant memories of working at the old Arctic Bear restaurant, I would like to offer an alternate viewpoint.

The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In that context, Mr. Fletcher’s column was not inappropriate. It did not “fan the flames of racism,” as one writer put it. Racism is defined as “the excessive or irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people or nation on racial grounds alone.” Nothing in the column supported that. It simply related the unearthing of an ember that has been smoldering beneath the ashes for decades. I can’t read this woman’s mind, but perhaps seeing her feelings revealed in print has helped her to believe that this country has, in fact, changed for the better.

It’s true that her account is the way it was, sadly, and many businesses in the white community, not only in Albany and the South but across the country, operated by those abhorrent practices. But, the Arctic Bear is the symbol that is being resurrected here and now, and as such bears the brunt of painful memories.

I didn’t grow up in Albany and so can’t share people’s wonderful recollections of the original Arctic Bear. I have no doubt there were good times there, if you were on the prevailing side of the racial divide. If you have good memories, there’s nothing wrong with that. I have every confidence that under the Stewbos management the new one will host good times for all segments of the Albany community.

As for the letter that suggested Carlton Fletcher’s family and neighbors may have been guilty of the wrongs he recounts, I make my own disclosure. My growing-up years elsewhere in Georgia were mainly during the 1960s as the Jim Crow era and segregation were coming to a chaotic, often-violent end. It pains me now to look back and remember the “n” word used in my own family. As a child I witnessed racism by members of the families of leading citizens in our community. A civic club operating a privately owned “whites only” pool challenged by a lawsuit closed it down rather than admit blacks. A close relative once said to me that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin should have received a medal instead of a life sentence. And I have to ask myself, if I had been an adult when these things happened, would I have had the courage in those times to speak out in opposition? Frankly, I don’t know. Probably not.

The tone of many comments about the column seemed to be that this elderly woman should “Move on!” or “Get over it!” Would we say that to an abused child, a rape victim, or a war veteran suffering from PTSD? I don’t think so. Neither should we to anyone who lived through the Jim Crow south and civil rights struggles, having their dignity and pride assaulted on a regular or even daily basis, suffering emotional or even physical abuse based on their skin color and their perceived place in the social order. We should not be so quick to judge someone in whose shoes we have not walked.

If Carlton Fletcher’s Arctic Bear column made some people uncomfortable, well good. It should. It was a reminder of one thing among many that should not be forgotten lest we repeat them and that “the good old days” weren’t that good for everyone. It was right in line with an old standard that has often been applied to newspapers: “A duty to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

David E. Shivers is a former weekly newspaper journalist, editor, and freelance writer now residing in the Terrell County community of Sasser.