R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Relearning Southern Old School Lessons on Tolerance


I attended one of the first integrated elementary schools in fifth avenueAlabama. Fifth Avenue Elementary in Huntsville. In 1963, Sonnie Hereford IV held the hand of his father Dr. S. W. Hereford III and walked into my elementary school in my little southern town to enroll.

By the time I got there five years later, you’d have never known a controversy existed. My classes were integrated from day one through high school. I grew up just a few years after the events like the Selma marches and the fire hoses being turned on protesters in Birmingham, but I was completely oblivious to the price others had been paying for far too long.

Yet, while tensions may have seethed beneath the surface, I never saw racial tension in my hometown in northern Alabama. Amazingly enough, I was completely oblivious to it until years later when I read the stories or saw those days represented in films. All the racism seemed unbelievably surreal when I watched it on screen, even though it had undoubtedly occurred.

During those school days, I learned basic things about tolerance. Funny thing, they didn’t call it tolerance then, but more of just being kind and respectful to others. I grew up thinking the racial or political differences between people were basically unimportant, but that people mattered more than their opinions.

But as I watch the world on my high-def screen today, I’m surprised so many of the younger generation have missed many of those most basic lessons that came from the most divided period in our nation’s history since the civil war.

Here are just a few of those elementary lessons on respect

I learned “All men are created equal.” That doesn’t mean we all have equal abilities, because we don’t. True, everyone’s good at something, but some are pretty much good at everything. The same set of kids always hit the honor rolls and had the highest grades. But the idea was that we all were created in the image of God, and that gave each one of us worth and dignity.

No one guaranteed us an equal outcome, because results were up to us. But when relating to others, we were to value them and treat them with kindness, regardless of their abilities or cultural background. And that was because ultimately they had a loving Father who had seen the need to create them in the first place. So respect for someone God valued was always appropriate.

Side note: I wonder if one reason we have trouble respecting each other nowadays is because we no longer believe Whose child we are. If some of us are accidents with no eternal purpose or design, respect becomes more subjective and optional. Perhaps without God, those who are lower-functioning or different are a little less equal than the rest after all?

Funny how bigotry can rush in so easily to fill the vacuum left by religious faith.

I learned to respect others without disrespecting myself. Growing up in a racially mixed environment, it seems natural now for me to be around people from different backgrounds and cultures. Huntsville was home to Redstone Arsenal, and much of the NASA rocket program was developed there. So the government relocated thousands of people, some from all around the world, to our sleepy little southern city.

The advantage to that was I grew up in a sumptuous cultural stew. I did community theatre with Jewish folks from up north, was taught theatre in high school by a descendent of German royalty, and played on the playground with African American kids at recess. Lots of cultures, religions, and different points of view!

We all respected each other’s differences pretty well, I believe. But never once did we think we should abandon those differences and create a watered-down version of culture that suited everyone. Celebrating African-American culture didn’t give me “white guilt,” and respecting Judaism didn’t mean I abandoned Jesus…

That’s not a melting pot we’ve always prized, but instead just a thin, tasteless gruel.

One thing I’m alarmed at is how in order to respect others these days, I’m expected to disrespect who I am. There’s now a prickly condescension in our culture for anything to do with “dead white guys.” The tough thing about this is a lot of the greatest things we have, in culture and science and literature, come from some of those folks. The fact they happened to be white should be irrelevant.

Yet in an effort to make everything “equal,” our leaders have felt the need to take gravitas away from them and hand it to others. With that brand of fair play, everyone loses.

While other cultures should most definitely be celebrated, we’re crazy to turn our backs on what I learned in school as Western Civilization. The ideas, literature, and arts of Europe have been invaluable to our American culture and the world. Sure, it’s a shame other authors and writers of the past 500 years didn’t have more exposure, and I’m sorrowful women didn’t have a greater voice, as well. But to be clear, it is not racist or xenophobic to value Western Civilization or the contributions of those “dead white dudes.” On the contrary, it is evidence of education and culture.

To denigrate “dead white Europeans” or anyone based on their race will only do us harm. The answer is not either/or, it is both/and. You do not have to take away from one culture to celebrate another. That’s a false dichotomy.

I learned the respectful exchange of opposing ideas. When I finally made it to a Southern Baptist university to study for the pastorate, I was surprised to find myself inundated with more atheistic teachings and secular philosophies than I’d ever experienced before. My teachers, while prescribing the study of Scripture, also prescribed Nietzsche, Freud, and other outspoken opponents of Christianity.

My professors hoped not just to undergird my existing beliefs, but also to challenge them in the controlled environment of academia. So I was bombarded regularly with ideas that not only challenged my beliefs, but outright attacked them. I suppose they figured it best to put me through the fire there than later on in the world. With their guidance, I would find there were really good answers to those skeptics’ questions.

Interestingly, my professors never felt the need to protect me from opposition. Rather, they invited it and encouraged debate. And they taught me that to ignore or silence an opposing viewpoint proved mine was actually the weaker of the two. Real Truth need never cower in the corner out of fear. It can stand strong in the face of even the most hateful opposition.

I just watched the riots at Berkeley outside of San Fransisco in the first few days of February 2017. In a strange twist, the students were no longer protesting with their free speech. Now they were protesting against it. Not only protesting, but destroying property and physically attacking those who disagreed.

To any thinking, rational person, these protesters just proved themselves to have the weaker arguments and minds. They proclaimed loudly they really didn’t believe their views could stand up to cool-headed, clear-minded debate. So instead, they just shout down their opponent, smash windows, and burn something.

This is not protest. This is thuggery and hooliganism. It shouldn’t be tolerated at a sporting event, much less a university. It is the very death of freedom of speech and liberty.

In the Women’s March on Washington this January, personal insults and profanities were lobbed not just occasionally, but continuously. The President’s children were verbally sexualized by celebrities on the main stage. True, insults have come from their opposition as well, but why stoop to that level as well if your cause is just? And some women were not allowed to march, simply because of their Pro-Life beliefs. This one difference caused them to be excluded when they agreed with most all the other views represented that day.

In what alternative universe is this “open-minded” and “tolerant”?

To be clear, Truth never needs to break a window. It never condescends into insults and personal attacks. It never stoops to the level of a pack of dogs fighting over a dead carcass in the road. Truth remains above the fray, trusting in its own integrity to eventually win the day.

My hope is that in these tumultuous times, some of us will remember a few of the most elementary lessons we learned as children in school. Because if you can’t agree on the most basic ground rules of respect, how will we ever solve anything as complex as our disagreements?

Photo via sfchronicle.com

Dave Gipson
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