I took another sip of punch. "James Venable must be getting on now. How old is he? Is he still the Imperial Wizard?"
He thought for a second. "I think so. A while back, I read where they wanted him to retire. Said he was getting too old. He said he wasn't going to, though. I don't think he has. He's almost about my age, a year or more younger."
"Do they still meet and hold rallies and burn crosses up on Stone Mountain?"
He dismissed that with a flick of his wrist. "Sure, they still go up there preaching 'nigga' this and 'nigga' that, but they've about played out. It's only the oldtimers that go in for that kind of stuff now. Young folks ain't got no time for it. It's like I was telling you about the NAACP and all those groups. They're fading away, too. People don't need them anymore. We got the laws. The schools and jobs are integrated, people come and go like they want to, associate with whoever they want to, live where they want to. You've seen all that yourself. The South ain't going back to the old days. The Klan, the NAACP and them groups are fading away. Things ain't like they used to be, you see."
I could have come back at him with hard statistical data showing wide black-white differentials in income, employment, housing, education, health, mortality and so on ad infinitum. Data on the overall progress of school desegregation would have presented, as we sociologists say, an equally disheartening picture. I could also have told him of the proliferation of Klaverns and Klan-like groups all across the country, North, South, East and West. I could have given firsthand accounts of young men who rallied at places like San Diego's Zoo and Balboa Park, "preaching 'nigga' this and 'nigga' that." I could have come at him with a lot of data, a lot of accounts. They would have been accurate, too, but they were for faculty colleagues, and students in "Minority Group Relations" courses. They would not have rung true to his ears. He had vivid recollections of the Old South. He was almost 50 when the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
decision was handed down. When he was young enough to be drafted into the army, the army wasn't accepting blacks. Now he had sons who were retiring with pensions from the army—and the navy. He was able to go as far as the fourth grade. Now he has children who are college graduates. People say, and he agrees, that he could have pitched in the major leagues. But he was already in his 40s when Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers. To his sorrow, none of his nine sons took much interest in baseball, but one played on two NFL teams. He can remember when no matter what job he performed, a black man never got paid as much as the lowest-paid white man. Now he can point to blacks working alongside whites and getting the same money—or to blacks supervising whites, in Georgia, and getting more money. He can remember when blacks had to call all whites above puberty "Mr.," "Miss," "Mrs.," "Sir," "Ma'am." Now he can hold back on these titles, bestowing them only on people he respects, graciously. Now only his nephews call him "Uncle." He can remember when the police stopped, harassed, beat and locked up "niggas" whenever and for whatever they wanted to. Now his nephew sits on the Lithonia City Council and the assistant police chief is black. A month or so ago, his son visited him from Colorado with his white wife and their children. Yes sir, Uncle Arbria has seen things change. He is bitter sometimes about the past indignities, the blocked opportunities, the wasted talent, but still, neither I nor all the social-science data in the world would ever convince him that things were pretty much as they had always been.
"That's true, Unc," I agreed. "Things certainly aren't like they used to be. The NAACP and other civil rights groups do seem to be on the decline."
He nodded. "They ought to. That's the way it should be. Now each individual should go out and try to make it for himself." I leaned over to look at his watch. It was almost suppertime, time to go. I stood up. "Well, Unc," I joked, "I sure would like to meet the great Mr. James Venable. Think you could arrange it before I leave?"
He looked at his watch. "If it wasn't so late, I'd drive you over to Decatur now. I'll take you to see him tomorrow."
"I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble."
"No trouble. I'm retired, got nothing but time."