By William Kevin Stoos
July 15, 2010
Racial prejudice is ugly. I never knew how ugly until I was on the
"Cornell" was a black kid from the projects on the South Side of
Chicago. He was a neatly dressed, diminutive young man, with a round,
open face and a smile that could light up a room. He was the kind of
guy you instantly liked. And we became fast friends my sophomore year
in college. I was a small town boy from rural southern Iowa and he
was a big city boy from Chicago. Neither of us had really ever had a
friend like the other. He did not run around with many white kids in
school. Other than one family in my hometownwho were nice folks and
well respected in the communityI did not know many black people.
We often went to the student union and played pool, or ate dinner in
the dorms and generally hung out together for almost a year until. I
enjoyed his company. He was a cute kid, intelligent, and fun to be
around. He was one of my best friends.
During the late sixties and early seventies, The University of Iowa
was a melting pot of many races, nationalities, religions, ethnic
groups and philosophies. It was part of the attraction of the place.
It is where small town Iowa kids met people from diverse cultures and
backgrounds; and where people from other cultures met
Midwesternerssome of the friendliest, most hospitable people in the
world. Iowa was a tolerant place and the university was special. It
was not a place associated with hate groups. There were no Skinheads
or black separatist groups or other such groups on campus. Iowa was,
generally, mellow. Everyone largely got along and benefited from the
association with others of different backgrounds. It was part of the
attraction of the place, and one of the main reasons I attended the school.
But, during Vietnam, the school experienced an occasional protest,
riot, and even one pitched battle in the streets between war
protestors and police which resulted in the tear gassing of a dorm
and a few burned buildings. Some said that Iowa stood second only to
Berkeley and Madison when it came to anti-war protests. Like society
in general, the University of Iowa was a place of social and
political ferment. Some of the more radical elements on campus such
as the SDS and Weathermenof which there were a fewpreached hatred
of the system, overthrow of capitalism, and declared war on The Man.
After Kent State, we had our share of riots in the streetssome of
which were ugly. As an Army ROTC student, I experienced the wrath of
the protestors first hand on more than one occasion. It was a
strange, interesting, introspective and even tumultuous time for the
campus as with much of society in general. Some of the voices were
strident, even ugly. Students with malleable minds could be
influenced, in bad ways.
Cornell was a shy, quiet kidstudious and, most of the time,
reserved. Other than me, he seemed to have few friends on campus. I
valued his friendship and I believed it worked both ways. There was
no indication to the contrary.
One day everything changed. After class, I went to his room and
knocked on the door to see if he wanted to hang out that night after
studying. For reasons I could not divine, he was uncharacteristically
aloof and even unfriendly. Did he want to hang out? I asked him.
"Naw, man," he said, dismissively, "I got a thing tonight. Maybe some
other time." Then he shut the door. I retreated to my room. Perhaps
he was having a bad day.
I did not know that the Black Panther Party was holding a rally for
black students that very evening. This black nationalist hate group
that preached Maoism, violence, hatred of the white race, and
overthrow of the government, had come to campus to recruit new
members. Their founders were associated with murders of police
officers and civilians alike, violence against the government,
robberies, and bombings. I could no more imagine my friend going to a
Panther rally that I could envision myself attending a Skinhead
convention. Unfortunately, this rally was the "thing" that Cornell
had going that night. That he would go was unthinkable.
The next day, after class I met Cornell in the hallway. Something had
changed. He was sullen and morose. Gone was the radiant smile. The
look he gave me sent chills down my spine. This was not the Cornell I
knew, but a hostile, scowling person, wearing a black leather jacket
and looking like he could spit. I was almost afraid to approach him.
"Do you want to hang out?" I asked, timidly.
"No, man," he replied, curtly.
"What's up?" I asked.
"You're just like all the rest of those Honky Mother-*******!" he
replied, as he walked off.
I stood there in the hallway, nonplussed, and reeling from the
imaginary knife in my gut.
Sadly, we never hung out again. He became hateful, reclusive, and
avoided the guys on the floor. What happened the night before, I do
not know, but the transformation was startling. Gone was the valued
friend whose company I enjoyed, and with whom I had never had a cross
word. In his place stood a bigot and a stranger I never knew. The
change was ugly and shocking. Whatever poison they fed him was
powerful and fast acting. Had I been so naïve? Was there a racist
beneath a veneer of civility and friendliness that I had not seen?
Whatever demons had lurked beneath the surface, the Panthers were
able to draw out. They turned a very nice young man into a hate-filled racist.
Sadly, we never spoke again. To him, I was a just a white-skinned
devil like all the rest. He no longer wanted my company. I was no
longer his friend, his companion, confidante or pool playing buddy. I
was simply white and, therefore, the Enemy. My father once said that
there is no bad experienceonly experience. And it happens either for
our benefit or guidance. If there was anything to be gained from this
episode it was this: I learned how I never want to treat others. And
how demeaning it is to judge another by their skin tones.
In time the Panthers became largely irrelevant (if they ever were
relevant) and their influence waned. They became merely an evil
footnote in the history of race relations in America. They were hoist
by their own petard. Ultimately the very violence they preached was
their undoing. Many of their founders were jailed, killed during
shootouts, or otherwise died violently. Some, like Eldridge Cleaver,
saw the light, turned to religion, renounced violence, and tried to
become productive members of society. But they were the exception.
When it came to hate mongering, they were good at what they did. And
the damage they did to race relations in this country was
incalculable. To this day, I curse their memory, these Panthers. It
was not so much the racial insult, or the fact that I became,
briefly, the object of prejudice. It was the look in his eyes that I
will rememberthe transformative power of hate. The worst part was,
it cost me a friend.