I learned that racial discrimination is wrong the same place I suppose some people learn it’s okay. At home. From my parents. Most of this education took place during the late 1960s and early 70s, in Fairview Heights, Illinois, where I lived until I was ten. And, like the best lessons from parent to child, all I had to do was watch.
Mom and Dad were torn when, in 1962, they had outgrown their two-bedroom house in East St. Louis. With a seventh child (me) on the way, they desperately needed a bigger place. They found one in Fairview, just up the bluffs from their decaying industrial hometown of East St. Louis. They loved their house in an all-new subdivision. But they were keenly aware they had joined a parade of white families fleeing Black ones. And it bothered them.
My parents themselves had learned racial tolerance from the words and deeds of their own parents. As little kids, when my mom and her sister needed a babysitter when their mom went into labor, their dad invited Addie, a Black woman and family acquaintance, to stay at their house. When my dad got his first job at the New York Central Railroad, where his dad was Chief Clerk, my grandfather assigned his very best stevedore, a Black man, to be his son’s mentor.
After settling into their split-level on Primrose Lane, Mom and Dad had an idea. Maybe they could host coffees at their house, inviting their old Black neighbors from East St. Louis to sit with their new white neighbors? If families would just get to know each other, they figured, new friendships could be made to help bridge the racial divide.
After broaching the idea with a few of their neighbors, the coffee idea went cold. There was zero interest. And asking Black friends to come to Fairview could put them in harm’s way. The police were said to idle their cruisers at the base of the bluffs on Highway 50, watching for cars with dark-skinned occupants heading up to Fairview, cars that were promptly escorted out of town. Intimidation like this kept the number of Black visitors to Fairview at approximately zero—and, for many years, the number of Black residents at exactly zero.
As a devout Catholic and avid reader, Dad kept up with what the Pope had to say, which was quite a lot in that era of reform known as Vatican II. The 1967 papal encyclical Populorum Progressio by Pope Paul VI addressed the needs of “those who are looking for a wider share in the benefits of civilization.” Dad thought of Black people. It spoke of the Church putting herself at the service of all, and proclaiming “solidarity in action at this turning point in human history is a matter of urgency.” To Dad it was a clarion call to get to work.
Dad had stayed in touch with Father Goldammer at St. Elizabeth’s, the East St. Louis parish he attended as a kid. Many priests are known for mild manners and solemnity. But this priest would turn red in the face, raging from the pulpit about the racial conflict tearing the country apart. And when my dad brought up the papal encyclical, and offered to write and give speeches to anyone who would listen, Father Goldammer was all ears. He would find my dad an audience.
So my dad gave these talks, mostly in church basements, and his speeches were well received. He put the message of the Populorum Progessio into his own words that went along these lines: Violence and anger and hatred aren’t the answer. Looking past racial differences is the answer. We are all brothers and sisters of the same family, the family of God’s people. Dad felt like one of the big brothers of that family. And it felt great. He had found his cadence in the great march for civil rights.
Just as the police murder of George Floyd would ignite the flames of protest in 2020, so too did the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Then, as now, the battle over civil rights became an intense topic of national conversation. Which side you were on, and how vocal you were about it, could make a difference in how others, including your employer, saw you.
There was a presidential election in 1968 that turned out to be a memorable one. Although he had won by a landslide in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, with the yoke of the Vietnam War around his neck, decided not to run for re-election. The Democratic nomination went to Vice President and former Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Our family liked this guy a lot. Nicknamed the Happy Warrior, this architect of the Peace Corp, before becoming Johnson’s VP, was the Democratic Whip in the US Senate, a position Senator Dick Durbin, Dad’s brother, has filled since 2005. Our family likes this guy quite a lot, too.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race also opened the door for the reincarnation of Richard Nixon’s political life after having lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960. He won the 1968 Republican nomination. Unlike most presidential races, this one featured a viable third party candidate in the segregationist George Wallace. He ran as an independent. Most people wrote off the Alabama governor as an avowed racist, given his attempts to block Black children from entering newly integrated schools.
In a mock election at Grant School, the Durbin kids old enough to participate all voted for Hubert Humphrey. They were promptly labeled “n-word lovers” by their classmates. And on the big sign at the front of our South Bountiful Heights subdivision, someone used Wallace bumper stickers to rename it “Wallace” Heights.
“Don’t worry,” Mom assured us all back at home. “If George Wallace becomes president then we’re all moving to Canada. Or maybe New Zealand.”
Some of our neighbors made a point of letting us know how they felt about our views. One morning we found our house had been egged and spray-painted. The twisting patterns were all over our fake window shutters and front porch railings—you can see them in the photo at the end of this post. Dad decided not to let it bother him, and to let the vandals know by keeping those shutters and porch rails just the way they were.
He responded differently to the next message that came our way. Some “yahoos,” as Dad called them, began driving their cars across our yard at night, leaving deep trenches in the grass. He drove a bunch of us down to the nearby Haydite mines, where I think they made cinderblocks. There, we loaded our Ford station wagon with massive, fossil-laden stones. It’s a miracle the car’s suspension didn’t snap on the drive home. I can still recall the sparks flying as the bottom of our lumbering car scraped the asphalt of Old Lincoln Trail. We put those stones along the curb of house and the yahoos never came back.
Meanwhile, Dad got pretty good at giving those speeches and his words were mostly well received. When he spoke of church leaders having a responsibility in the matter of racial justice, however, word got back to his new church St. Albert’s in Fairview. And he got a message from fellow members of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men. They took him aside one night after a meeting. The head priest at St. Albert’s and even the local bishop, they told him, thought Bill Durbin was being arrogant. His DCC buddies asked him to stop. Knowing he was being heard by Church leadership only made my dad want to speak out more. He felt he was accomplishing something, and told these guys, in so many words, to go pee up a rope. They weren’t going to shut him up. But something else soon would.
One night, as Dad entered the basement of St. Joseph’s Church to give a speech, he saw something he hadn’t seen at one of these events before: A film crew. And, beside them, some colleagues from the Aeronautical Charts and Information Center, the Defense Department agency in St. Louis where Dad worked. What the hell?
Dad’s speech was preceded by one from another activist priest, Father Geneseo, who was himself on thin ice with Church leadership. But the crew didn’t film him. They waited for Dad. When he approached the pulpit, they turned on their lights and raised a microphone as the film camera started to whir. When he was done, the crew packed up and left. They didn’t stay for the next speaker. They only filmed Bill Durbin.
Then all kinds of questions went through my dad’s head: Who brought the film crew? What kind of word would go back to his supervisors? Would they make some kind of report to the government investigators who kept an eye on the personal lives of the men working on their secret projects making maps for the military? Would he have some explaining to do when he was next up for promotion? Would he even be up for promotion? He decided not to find out. The possible answers to any of these questions were too painful to bear.
Until that night at St. Joseph’s, Bill Durbin hadn’t thought anyone at ACIC would care what he spoke about, as long as he wasn’t revealing classified information, which of course he never did. He was making a steady income for the first time in his life, serving as a diligent civil servant in the midst of the Cold War. It had been years since he or Mom went to relatives to borrow a few dollars until payday. But now, with the government apparently recording his activities, he felt that meager financial security was at risk.
Dad told Father Goldammer there would be no more speeches. He also called up the head of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men to tell him he had reconsidered their advice. They didn’t have to worry anymore, Dad told the guy, because there would be no more speeches. The guy thanked him.
Then he quit the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men and, keeping his word, stopped giving speeches. And, at last, he painted those shutters on our front windows. The march for civil rights would have to continue without Bill Durbin, at least outside the house. But the education of his children would continue. And it included one field trip I’ll never forget.
Although typically considered a northern state, the longitudinal expanse of Illinois puts it in both the North and South. For the better part of the 20th century, while the progressive metropolis of Chicago at its northern edge was chock full of racially tolerant whites, the little town of Cairo at the other end had scant few. Pronounced KAY-ro like the syrup (not KY-ro like its namesake city in Egypt) things happened in that Illinois town that one might think in those days only happened in places like Alabama or Mississippi.
According to newspaper accounts, in July 1967, 19-year-old Private Robert Hunt, a Black soldier home on leave in Cairo, was stopped by the police for a malfunctioning taillight. A few hours later he was dead. His battered body lay crumpled on the floor of a holding cell in the police station, where the cops later told the FBI the disturbed AWOL had hung himself with his t-shirt. The FBI agreed and decided not to investigate, despite the bruises, despite no indication Private Hunt was AWOL, and despite a mesh ceiling on the holding cell that could not possibly hold the weight of a grown man. In any earlier year, things might have ended there. But this was 1967. This time the Black community rose up in anger. They smashed windows, burned buildings to the ground, and vowed to continue until things changed.
A few years later, when Bill Durbin drove a station wagon full of us kids past the cotton fields on its outskirts and into the town of Cairo, things hadn’t changed much. White residents had formed a group known as the White Hats, for the white construction helmets they wore while patrolling the city. White civil rights activists joined up with the NAACP and local Black residents to form the Cairo United Front. One of those activists was Father Bernard Bodewes, once a priest at St. Albert’s in Fairview who had relocated to Cairo to join the battle. Dad had called Father Bodewes and asked to bring his kids down for a visit. Dad wanted us to see firsthand that some of the riots and violence we read about in the papers and seen on TV happened just a few hours drive from where we lived.
Father Bodewes pointed to the wall of his dining room. “See those holes? Who wants to look through and tell me what they see?”
We took turns peering through some of the half dozen or so holes in the wall, each big enough to slide a hot dog through. “I see a flag pole,” I said as I peered outside and felt a slight wind on my face coming through the hole.
“That’s the police station,” said Father Bodewes.
As it dawned on us these holes were from bullets fired from the direction of the police station, maybe by police themselves, Dad suggested we move away from the wall and into the living room. There, Father Bodewes shared some of what was going on in Cairo. I didn’t follow all of it, but I could tell Dad really thought the world of this guy. Dad might have stopped speaking out himself on behalf of civil rights, but I think he wanted us to know someone who was still speaking. At least for the time being.
Father Bodewes was booted from the Catholic Church in 1971. His excommunication was ostensibly the result of his taking the diocese to court in an attempt to restore his paycheck. The Church hadn’t paid his $700 monthly salary in nearly a year, cutting him off when he refused to break with the Cairo United Front. Apparently, these disciples of Jesus Christ were unimpressed by a priest literally putting his life on the line in the service of people in need. Bernard Bodewes died in 2013.
On the way out of Cairo, Dad drove us through parts of town that by comparison made even East St. Louis look good. The streets were nearly deserted and it looked like the trash hadn’t been picked up in years. Dad slowed down as we passed the remains of buildings that had been burned down. Some were nothing but charred wood piles, or brick boxes with no tops and filled with blackened debris. The half dozen Durbin kids packed into the car didn’t have much to say.
The long drive home was a quiet one.
I called Mom while preparing this post. “I suppose some people just need other people to look down on,” she said. She remembers exactly where the so-called color lines of the East St. Louis were drawn—Blacks had to stay south of Louisiana Boulevard, Latinos in Washington Park—and laments that we’re still struggling with such things. “The worst four-letter word we have is ‘hate’,” she told me, before quickly attributing the quote to Eleanor Roosevelt, reminding me that I learned the sin of plagiarism from my parents too.
We lost Dad to heart disease in 2001. After nearly twenty years, I still think of not just his message but the messenger himself. He loved his family, his country, his faith, and the ideals of fairness and justice. And he worked hard every day in service to all that he loved. Would that I might follow in such footsteps.
I think about how Dad would view the Black Lives Matter movement today, a half century after those turbulent 1960s. I think about our trip to Cairo, his speeches, those shutters—fresh memories come to mind daily.
I think too about 19-year-old Robert Hunt, that young Black man on leave from serving his country, who died back in 1967 at the hands of the police. His life sure mattered.