I attended an off-Broadway performance of “Driving Miss Daisy” Saturday night at Leach Theatre on the campus of Missouri University of Science and Technology.
I recommend the show, or if you missed it at Leach, where a couple well-known television entertainers played the key roles, you can always rent it or maybe, if you are lucky, watch it for free on Amazon Prime.
There is a lesson in “Driving Miss Daisy.” An important lesson.
The story is about an elderly white woman, Daisy Werthan, who has been deemed too old to drive. That is a story in itself. Her son hires a black chauffer, Hoke Colburn, to drive Miss Daisy. The year is 1948, and the story takes place in Atlanta. Oh, and did I mention that Miss Daisy is Jewish?
So, I have set the scene for you. A Jewish senior citizen with a black chauffer in Atlanta in 1948. If you haven’t seen the movie or the play, you have probably figured out by now that the comedy-drama written by Alfred Uhry addresses racism.
If you were lucky enough to attend Saturday’s performance, great. A crowd of over 450 showed up for the show. If you didn’t, stream the movie, because it’s important to not only know where we are now, but where we were.
“Driving Miss Daisy” shows us where we were when it comes to racism. It also shows us, in part, where we needed to go and how we got to where we are today.
I am no race expert, and I am a little too young to have been around in 1948, but I remember well the 1960s, when the civil rights movement changed America forever and for the better.
Prior to the civil rights movement a lot of people like Miss Daisy had their own views about people of color. Separate schools. Separate water fountains. The back of the bus. They weren’t all bad people. In those days and in those towns, it was how you were brought up, your culture.
It was how I was brought up. I grew up in the Bootheel of Missouri, where cotton was king and poor, black folks were there to hoe it and pick it. Many of them lived in shanties on my grandfather’s farm. They were paid little and had little. They were treated differently, not allowed in the same stores and restaurants that I was. They were called names, and sometimes disappeared without a trace, and the only folks who cared were their folks.
The first time I thought to myself that all this wasn’t right was when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. My Sunday School teacher thought it would do us some good to load our all-white class from the all-white church into a van and attend an all-black church literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.
That Sunday morning changed me and my young, impressionable attitude forever. And as the early 1960s turned into the late 1960s and early 1970s, much of America saw things differently, too.
People like Martin Luther King and Lyndon B. Johnson started talking and showing courage, and America, even Miss Daisy, started listening. See the show and you will know what I mean.
Maybe you are old enough, like me, to have seen the transformation. When I was in junior high eating at a restaurant in the Bootheel, a black man walked through the front door, came to our table and asked for something to eat. The owner quickly ushered him out the front door and told him if he’d go to the back door, he’d find him something to eat. When I went to the county courthouse, just inside the front door was a water fountain on the left for whites and another on the right for “negroes,” as the sign once read.
By the time I made it to high school in the mid 1970s, things had changed a lot. The sons and daughters of the local farm workers were sitting beside me in class, as integration had been forced on the South. We played football, baseball and basketball together, even spent some time together on weekends.
I don’t think there was any magical transformation that made the civil rights movement a success, just a willingness to listen and to accept, and to realize we hadn’t been doing this race thing right for the past couple hundred years.
Fast forward to today, which historically speaking, is only the blink of an eye from the 1960s. The formerly all-white NFL is full of black players. CEOs and movie stars are black. A black man just served two terms as president of the United States.
It was as much an evolution as a revolution, as not only the laws changed, but we changed. The problem isn’t mastered, but those of us who lived through the evolution know how far we’ve come.
Like millions of Americans, I lived through the same thing Miss Daisy lived through. I won’t spoil the show for those of you who haven’t seen it, but Miss Daisy’s views on race and race relations were transformed through a relationship. After all, there is no better way to overcome racism.