Dr. W. Melvin Brown is a Navy veteran who now practices medicine in his hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. He is also an African-American, a fact that caused him to be a subject of controversy last month when some white friends urged him to apply for membership in the prestigious Charleston Rifle Club.
Brown was literally “black-balled.” In the election meeting members place either a white or a black marble in a box assigned to the proposed candidate; six black balls is a “no.” When it turned out that Brown’s box contained 11 black marbles, he was tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave the meeting just as the successful 13 applicants, all white, moved forward for the induction ceremony.
To this point in the story, Brown is a victim, but not a hero. What I think makes him a hero is his response to this racial insult. Brown admits that his immediate reaction was “huge disappointment” and “not a little embarrassment.” And I think we would all agree that he had every right to anger; a public denunciation of the club — and maybe a lawsuit– would seem an understandable response.
Instead, Brown has chosen to stand back to see how things work out. He is quietly supporting his friends in the club who are trying to rectify the situation. “I would like to see the club fix itself.” While commanding whites in the Navy, many from the South, Brown found that his efforts to show them respect were usually reciprocated.
Demonstrations and litigation are, of course, necessary to bring about structural change, but I think Brown shows us that courtesy and patience also have a role to play, especially in contexts like a social club where personal relations are so central to the group’s success.
Brown also made a comment that keeps popping up in my mind: “The best way to fight racism is to meet people.” Maybe that’s challenge we all should think hard on in the new year.
So let’s hope that the members of the Charleston Rifle Club listen to their better angels and ask Dr. Brown to join them. But let’s also ask ourselves if we would not be better citizens– and happier people– if we followed Dr. Brown’s advice to “meet” more people from backgrounds different than our own.
Happy New Year!