The US Army stationed me in several Southern states at various times during my career, for a total of 13 years below the Mason-Dixon line. I was raised outside NYC, the son of wealthy white parents who were Republicans, even holding political office, but so liberal in their racial relationships that I was blind to the racial tensions of my era.
In our world blacks & ethnic minorities were my equal (hell, in prep school in 1963 one black classmate's parents were a doctor and an attorney, listed in "Who's Who" and I assumed at least as prominent as my own parents. Though I do admit this was a new thing then, and some of my white classmates did have trouble with it). Then I was exposed to the Deep South, and learned a different reality.
I'd actually be addressed as "Massah" by blacks, but what distressed me more was the fear in their eyes, when they dared even make eye contact with me. I had never experienced fearful deference before, and I didn't like the feeling.
I was an Army Officer for much of this time in the South, and so I moved through life exercising a great deal of military authority over many people (not to mention the lessons of my pampered & privileged childhood). But never did I think, I truly hope, even when dealing with the most junior Private, that I was a fundamentally superior person to him or her, inherently entitled to my position rather than having earned it for a practical military purpose.
I'd once been a Private myself, and I'd experienced the Officers who didn't understand that distinction, thinking they held some kind of God-given aristocratic authority. I would not make that mistake myself.
And so when I found myself being addressed and treated in groveling ways by Southern blacks, that even a pompous General would not demand of a Private soldier, I was sickened. A single example is illustrative of another aspect of the racial divide in the South, but only one of many I experienced.
In 1981 as an Army Captain in Alabama, I had just started to date a woman aged 33 who lived in the same off-post apartment complex that I did (I was still in deep denial). We decided to go to Atlanta, Georgia, for the day, some 90 miles away.
We were having cocktails high up in the atrium of the "Peachtree" something or other, I think it was called; stores, offices, a hotel and other mall features. And suddenly she became alarmed.
"Look at that!" she exclaimed. "Isn't that awful?"
"Where?" I asked, and she pointed to some garden terraces below us, where tables and chairs were set. "I don't see what you mean."
"Right there! See? Isn't that a disgrace?" she pointed out.
And then my eyes saw a black man and white woman sitting together over coffee, I think it was, some 2 levels below us, both dressed in business attire. I'm sure my eyes had already passed over them already as we surveyed the view, nothing about them having attracted my attention. But now my date was having a fit over it.
"Well, perhaps they work in an office together here, just discussing business."
"It doesn't matter! That sort of thing shouldn't be allowed!"
I was too stunned to reply, but I was already forming a very negative opinion of this lady.
Afterwards we went down to the main level, just at the moment the doors to a movie theatre happened to open at the end of a showing. Suddenly I felt her squeezing my arm like a vice grip, and she whispered to me, trembling in fear:
"Protect me! Get me out of here quickly!"
I was puzzled at first, until I realized that whatever movie had been playing, had a largely black audience, and we were in the middle of a stream of black people leaving the theatre all at once.
I steered us to a quiet area away from the crowd, thinking to myself: "Does she really believe black men are going to abduct & rape her in broad daylight in the middle of the Peachtree Center?"
She apologized for her panic, explaining she had always been taught that white women should be afraid of black men. Far from fear, this was outright panic. I think she invited me onto another date with some of her friends a week or so later, and then I broke it off.
I have similar stories, but all with the same message. Southern whites may think blacks have equality and are judged fairly, but let them become black for a few days and their eyes might be opened.