Albert J. Raboteau tells a deeply personal story.
There is a deep root, I think, in the African-American community that has always appreciated that hate restored or inspired as a way of attacking hate is a no-win situation. And that hate and even resentment, as King and others taught, leads to the corrosion of the individual person’s own humanity. It just doesn’t attack the other, but it attacks and has an effect upon the individual.
If I can be personal for a moment, my father was killed by a white man in Mississippi three months before I was born. And the white man who killed him was never tried, he claimed self-defence and he wasn’t indicted even. And when I was growing up, I knew that my father was dead – my mother and step-father raised me – but they didn’t talk about the circumstance of my father’s death. I didn’t, indeed, find out much about it until I went back to Mississippi when I was 50 years old to investigate.
And when I was 17 and getting ready to go off to college, they sat me down and for the first time explained to me what had happened. And they said, “The reason we didn’t tell you before this was we didn’t want you to grow up hating white people.” Now I had two responses to that. One was I was glad that they told me. Second response was, what kind of country is it that we live in when you can’t tell a child why his father was killed because you didn’t want him to grow up hating white people?
What happened, when I – as I said, when I was 50 years old, I went back to Mississippi. I’d been back to Mississippi many times as a child, though I grew up in the Midwest – my mother moved from the South because of what had happened. We went back on vacations, and I experienced my own much smaller degree of prejudice when we went back. But when I went back when I was 50, I talked to some of my relatives about it. Most of them didn’t want to talk about it, but a few did. And I went to the police department in Bay St. Louis, the town I was born in, and found the record of the murder of my father.
And one of the policemen said that he had heard that the son of the man who had murdered my father lived in a close-by town. So I found his name in the phone book, and I called him up, and I said out of the blue, “I’m the son of Albert Raboteau, whom your father killed. And I’d like to know what your family’s version of that story is.” He said, “Oh, yes” – he paused a minute, and he said, “Yes, I was nine years old when that happened, so I remember your father. I remember him as a big burly man, and he and my father fought, and my father pulled a gun in self-defence and shot him.”
Well I have a picture of my father standing between my two sisters. One was 11, one was 13. He’s barely taller than my 11-year-old sister. His build was like mine, he was very slender. And so he was not a burly man. So I didn’t challenge him about that, but I did say, “What happened to your father?” And he said, “He came down with terminal cancer and he shot and killed himself.” And I was very tempted to say, “Did he use the same gun as he did when he shot my father?” but I thought that would have been cruel, so I didn’t.
But after that conversation, I visited my father’s grave. And I had been there many times over the years, but for the first time I began to cry. And it was as if in my mind’s eye I saw him, I saw him getting shot and I saw him falling. And it was as if he was falling into my arms and into my life. And it was if a father and son had finally met.