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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pat Cusick, June 19, 1989. Interview L-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Cusick's increased racial awareness

Cusick explains that his racial awareness grew in response to his religious schooling, war experience, and physical relocation from the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pat Cusick, June 19, 1989. Interview L-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Let me deal with my father; that's the easiest. My father came down to work in the steel mills of Gaston, Alabama. His parents had come over from Ireland; that's about all I know—Irish-Catholic. My mother's family has all the convoluted roots of any Southern historical novel. The Hollingworth branch of it came over with William Penn and were Quakers. By the time they worked their way down to Alabama they were Methodists. Another branch—my great-grandmother was a Lewis, so my third-great uncle was Meriwether Lewis, who did the Lewis and Clark. One of them married Betty Washington, George Washington's sister. So I was supposed to be very proud of all of that type of thing. In my mother's family, my great-grandfather was the leading slave owner in Northern Alabama. He was a major in the Confederate army, and formed the first unit of the Klan in Alabama after the war. There were two leading families in that county. Now that was the tradition that I had been raised in. Until recently, until my mother went into a nursing home, his picture hung on the mantle with the stars-and-bars draped behind it and the gun underneath. The sword had been lost by the United Daughters of the Confederacy during some festival. That was the tradition I had been raised in, learning the poems of the confederacy and all of this. My grandparents got divorced in their seventies. When I'd ask about my grandfather and his family, I was always told, "Well, they're strange. They live up on the mountain. And as proof of their strangeness, they were Republicans in the New Deal South." Of course, that ended all discussion. Obviously that was proof of insanity. Only until I saw a history of the county, did I find that they were very different politically. They were Southern abolitionists. They were the Underwood family. They were the other leading family in the county. The book said that when my grandparents got married it was a real event because they came from such opposite families. They supported the Union. They were Southern abolitionists. They were lawyers and judges, and so it was only natural that when they Union troop came, my great-grandfather on that side became a federal judge during Reconstruction. Even though I don't think we are our ancestors—thank God—I was delighted to find that this other branch had a much different tradition, and, in fact, one of the people was the attorney for the Cherokee nation before the Supreme Court on the forced march, the Trail of Tears. So I felt very good. A few years ago my cousin, a retired marine general, was telling me, "You are the only one of your grandfather's descendants that is like him. All the rest put great store in making money, but you are as idealistic and as crazy as he was. Did you know he was a socialist and a close associate of Eugene B. Debbs in Alabama in 1910?" So I came from very Southern but very different traditions in terms of the two branches of the family. But I didn't even know about any of that until recently, because there had been this divorce, and they had been totally separate. I was glad, even though we are not our ancestors. I listened to and met Malcolm when he was in Durham, and every time I heard Malcolm say, "The sons of slave owners, the grandsons of slave owners!" In my case that was true. But I was raised in the segregationist tradition. I guess the first change came when I went to high school. My mother, who had become a convert to Catholicism in 1927, sent me to a boarding school in Alabama connected with the Benedictine monastery in Coleman, Alabama—St. Bernard. I went there, and some of the priests were constantly positing the statement that segregation was morally wrong. I used to argue against it. But there was a lot of discussion. Of course, there weren't any blacks in the monastery or the high school. By the time I finished high school, I think I was pretty convinced, at least intellectually, that segregation was screwed up.
So this was a really important influence on you?
Yes it was. The next important influence was on a more practical level—the Korean war. I went in the Air Force, and that physically removed me from the South. I not only associated with black people, my supervisor was a black person. I had been around black people all my life within that paternalistic way. Not only was he my supervisor, but he was brighter than I was. I was in air traffic control, and he was the air traffic control supervisor at Berlin. I think that helped almost complete the piece. I went back to Rome, Georgia, where we were living then. I used to wonder what I would do if one of my friends from the service came to town and had to ride on the back of the bus. I kept avoiding that question.
You compartmentalized.
It took me about ten years. I was a very retiring person. I never would argue with people very much. That seems hard to believe now; I'm notorious around here. It took me almost ten years to come out of that closet, so to speak, of what I could or should do.