When Will We Learn?

It felt like a blow—what the woman beside me was saying.

Questions flicked through my mind: Was this what happened? How could I not remember that? Why did I not remember what had triggered the entire thing?

Circa 1980:

My partner and I went into a well-known restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama to eat dinner. We were working the Evening Shift (3-11 pm). Though we were both young female officers in the Birmingham Police Department, the shift sergeant had put us together to work a beat that included two housing projects, a couple of fast-food joints, and one “nice” restaurant—the one we walked into.

The number of females and the number of black police officers were small. My partner was a member of a smaller demographic as a black female officer. I was a minority of “one” as a Jewish police officer, evidenced by my engraved name tag.

My religion was not something I spoke much about, unless someone asked a question. Thankfully, I never encountered direct prejudice from fellow officers about it. Dealing with being a rookie and a female rookie was enough. But that is another tale.

This story began when we entered the restaurant and sat at a booth. One of us took the portable radio from her gun belt and placed it on the table, as was customary for uniformed officers when eating. The man in a booth behind us twisted around and asked if we could turn it off. I replied we would turn it down and did so. When he repeated his request, I explained we had to keep the radio on in case we were called or there was an emergency we needed to respond to. Again, we adjusted the volume as low we could and still hear it.

This did not satisfy the “gentleman,” who stood and snarled at us. 

I have always remembered what he said as being something that included the “N” word; he got loud in the restaurant with his remarks; and we arrested him for Disorderly Conduct or (possibly) Public Drunk, not without some trouble. After being told he was under arrest, he became passive-aggressive, sitting down again in the tight booth and refusing to stand up. It took several officers to carry him to the police car.

Forty-plus years later at a retired female officers’ luncheon, I sat next to the woman who had been my partner that night, the first time I had seen her since those days. She told me the story as she remembered it. Her recollection, though similar in the basics to mine, contained a particular addition that stunned me. After twice requesting that we turn off our radios, the man stood and said, “What do you expect from a ‘N-word’ and a Jew?”

She threw the contents of her salad bowl at him.

I don’t know and didn’t ask if the lettuce connected, but I assume (and hope) so.

Apparently, he had spoken loud enough that others heard him and, according to my partner, something like a bar brawl ensued, with people taking sides, and I called for backup. Several went to jail. In court, the judge required him to make contributions to a charity of our choice (a unique sentence, but one that seems aligned with the principles of justice).

What disturbs me is not that I forgot many of the details—I have forgotten way more than I remember about the past—but that I forgot the “. . . and a Jew” part.

Did I just pass it off as a drunk idiot, and it faded from my mind? This seems odd, since I distinctly remember the first and only time someone called me a “kike” (a derogatory slur for a Jew) in middle school. It stunned me. It is one thing to know intellectually that some nebulous people hate you, another to hear it from the mouth of your peers.

So why did I forget?

I don’t know the answer. But I know that anti-Semitism has increased 500% over the past decade in the country I call home. And it is still on the rise.

And that makes me profoundly sad . . .  fearful . . . and angry at those who spew hatred and spread conspiracy lies that have roots hundreds of years old.

I have researched and written about the Civil Rights days of my city. I know that the movement for Black rights—to vote freely, to sit in the restaurant of their choice, to go to a school with White children, etc.—was decried as a “Black-Jewish Communist Conspiracy.”

Blacks and Jews have their own stories, their own histories, but we are particularly linked. 

In a deeper sense, the entire human race is linked. As Dr. King wrote from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And from a song of my youth: “When we will ever learn? When we will ever . . . learn?”

T.K. Thorne writes about what moves her, following the flight path of curiosity, reflection, and imagination.

About T. K. Thorne

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like her blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her.
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26 Responses to When Will We Learn?

  1. otebear201 says:

    All beautifully said. As you and I have discussed, being Jewish, how this sinks deeply into the soul of our identity, is a struggle.

  2. Becky Hanks says:

    I remember that story, but like you, I didn’t know (or forgot) the details. Thank you for this post. It is one that needs to be shared, saved and re-read many times until it finally truly sinks in. As a dear lady whom we both loved said “Never forget”.

  3. Doug Gray says:

    Wow, T.K. What a powerful and timely recounting.

  4. jmiller916 says:

    Well, what a story. Thanks for sharing and hope you’re doing well

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  5. Larry says:

    “The Only Thing We Learn From History Is That We Learn Nothing From History.”

  6. Leah says:

    Sad story! It does often feel like overall, humans never learn much.

  7. stameysara says:

    Thanks for this powerful reminder of how far we still need to move to create a truly civilized society. Kudos to you and your partner!

  8. dsartdon says:

    We learn, we forget, we (hopefully) learn again. But we are certainly taking our own sweet time about it.

  9. Linda Ames says:

    I feel incredibly sad, frustrated, and angry having read this. As a daughter of an alcoholic who dis respected women, a daughter of the 60s coming of age, I know of prejudice, but not prejudice against race or ethnic background. And while I can identify with prejudice, I cannot fathom the additional pain inflicted nor do I understand the increased, increasing anti-movements of today. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for this commentary. ❤️❤️❤️ linda

  10. T. K. Thorne says:

    Thank you, Linda. I am very sorry for the pain you had to endure. Sometimes pain hardens us, but when we let it teach us compassion, the world is a better place. You make the world a better place.

  11. T. K. Thorne says:

    Sara, I love how you have phrased that–a truly civilized society. I lift my glass to that! Thank you.

  12. T. K. Thorne says:

    It does seem that way, doesn’t it? We have advanced so far in so many ways, but in other ways . . . not.

  13. T. K. Thorne says:

    ..and are doomed to repeat it. Yes. Sadly, true.

  14. T. K. Thorne says:

    Writing this helped me process it. Thank you for reading.

  15. T. K. Thorne says:

    Thank you, Doug. So sad that it is timely….

  16. T. K. Thorne says:

    “Never forget.” I promise.

  17. T. K. Thorne says:

    A gift to be able to talk to another about that struggle. Maybe one day we will figure it out!

  18. Thanks for sharing this story, TK.

  19. T. K. Thorne says:

    It helped me process to write about it. Thank you for taking the time to read it!

  20. The last words of my recently published book in part about growing up in Birmingham and being involved in the civil rights struggle, in part about enslavement in my family are “We must not forget.”
    — From “Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree.”

  21. Janice Sexton says:

    Enjoyed your story and it just goes to show, there have always been hateful people in our society, but with more people on this earth, there is also more of this kind of behavior. You always write with such style and in a way that makes the reading so enjoyable….keep up the good work

  22. T. K. Thorne says:

    Marcia, those are truth words. “Never forget.” ~TK

  23. T. K. Thorne says:

    Janice, you are right. Hatred of “other” has always been there. What strange beings we are that we can, with just a tiny mental twist, make someone an “other.” The good news, is we can twist back and recognize our common humanity. …Thank you for the kind words and for reading mine.

  24. Kathy Puckett says:

    Sigh. We humans are a real mess! After all my lifelong contemplating I have no answer to your question. Congrats on being a Remarkable Women! If you get a minute and want to try to meet for lunch to catch up; just shoot me a text! Kathy puckett Sent from my iPhone


  25. T. K. Thorne says:

    We are definitely a mess! That is a great word for it. Thanks. I’ll holler at you!

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