The Divide (continued)

George Dean told me it went like this: first of all, he was no gung-ho soldier by any stretch of the imagination. Joining the National Guard was a good way to avoid a one-way ticket to Vietnam, and he knew it. Didn’t care that there weren’t any black men in the South Carolina National Guard. Didn’t care that his friends might think he was crazy for joining up. He just wasn’t interested in going to Vietnam. And his parents sure as hell weren’t going to pay his way to Canada. It was that simple. Join the Guard. Avoid ’Nam. Lots of folks were joining it for the same reason.

There was nothing terribly heroic about this move, he’ll admit, but nonetheless he did integrate the South Carolina National Guard in 1965. “And I caught hell for at least three of those six years. But I learned a lot about the South and the southern white man’s mentality. I’m the lone black man in the whole damn South Carolina National Guard. And I’m with farmers, lawyers, everybody. And then I’m just with human nature. I find out that it ain’t about no vocation, it’s about the person now.” Peer pressure, he told me, shaped the way many people interacted with him. “Now it’s not just that he don’t like Dean. It’s just that if he is seen by his peers talking to Dean.”

Dean wasn’t necessarily looking for a helping hand, and based on how he was treated, he didn’t even expect it. He said that when he’d walk through the chow line, the cooks would slam food so hard on his tray, they’d knock it out of his hands. The first time he went on a bivouac, nobody would share a tent with him. “I’m not talking about what I heard—when I sat on one end of a table, they would move to the other end. I’m not talking about what I heard; I’m talking about what I experienced. But I hold no malice for no man.” And yet, he said, the National Guard was hell. “I’m dodging Vietnam, and I get caught on the other side of the fence in the civil unrest of the South. That was hell.”

George Dean comes from a long line of tough-nosed, boundary-crossing, erudite, and persistent dissenters. His family has deep ties to South Carolina and Orangeburg. Rev. A. J. Townsend, his grandmother’s brother, was a graduate of the University of South Carolina right after slavery. His grandfather, Rev. I. H. Fullerton, was pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. At one time the church stood where the county courthouse is today. Local officials, Dean said, wanted to use the spot for the courthouse and seized the land. For years church members worshipped in a tent while constructing the current building, which is located across the street from State and Claflin. “My history is a part of this fabric, you understand, and when I think of my hometown, I think of it different than just 1968. I don’t define Orangeburg as so many people do, by the Orangeburg Massacre. You know, this is my hometown. And this is my heritage. My grandmother is a graduate of Claflin College. My mother is a graduate of Claflin. My father, he’s class of ’31 at South Carolina State.”

Dean grew up in his grandfather’s house on the corner of Highway 601 and Dutton Street, not far from South Carolina State. His father worked for Clemson College Extension Service and his mother was a schoolteacher. He doesn’t have a “typical African-American rags-to-riches story.” That wasn’t his life. His people were middle-class black Americans. They were proud and hardworking. “My perspective of things in this community, and my experiences, might be a little bit different than some because I was in a certain setting. But when I grew up here, in the fifties, the South was the South. And everybody knows the history of the South.”

Dean was never afraid to confront that South. In 1956, for example, when he had just started high school, a young and brash George Dean was driving around town with some friends. They decided to stage their own little protest and drove their car up to the window at the A&W Drive-In. They asked for four hot dogs and four sodas. “And the reply was that ‘we don’t serve niggers.’ And so we said, ‘We didn’t ask for niggers. We asked for four hot dogs and four drinks.’” Despite their wit, they didn’t get served. But they were young and persistent. They hatched a new plan. This time they decided to get the entire football team to ride along with them to the A&W and take up all the spaces in the parking lot. Someone exposed their plan to the assistant principal and then to their parents, who were petrified, thinking, “The Klan’s gonna throw our children in the Edisto River!” He chuckled when he told me about it, but said that incident taught him to be a bit more covert, to work behind the scenes: “There are so many people in Orangeburg and all over the South and all over America who were heroes who never shined. People in the background who kept things going—who kept stability within the movement. Back then this was referred to in print as ‘the civil rights movement.’ We who were in the struggle called it just what it was—‘the struggle.’ And it was a struggle.”

What people don’t understand, Dean said, is that because of the two colleges, Orangeburg was a mecca for civil rights activism. This is too often glossed over because of what happened in 1968. Not that what happened then isn’t important, but it wasn’t the first time students had protested. “A lot of my peer group,” he said, “who were the children of college professors, for example, became activists. Because, you know, we had seen the passiveness of our parents and the results of their passiveness in the South. A lot of the activists of the sixties were coming out of college and university settings. They weren’t rabble-rousers. They were intelligent and could interpret the inequities of the system.”

As he matured, though, Dean gained some perspective on Jim Crow and what it did to his parents. He started to understand what he then thought was simply accumulated passiveness. His father, for example, was a state employee and, therefore, was in a particularly difficult position. Speaking out too forcefully might have meant losing his job. And losing a job is a big deal when you have seven children to feed. Years later Dean discovered that, in the wake of the shootings, his father had served on a biracial committee whose goal it was to ease tensions in the community. He learned again that sometimes subtle efforts to foster change can be as effective as direct ones.

Maybe both are necessary.

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