Thank you, sir
I owe a debt I can never repay to a man whose name and story I will never know.
I don't think there is any way to find out, either--all the people I know who would know where to start looking are dead, and he probably is, as well. For years, I have wondered how I can tell him I am grateful, and have found no clear answer. I think that the only way is to pay it forward, both by trying to pass on the kindness and courage he showed, and by telling the story.
First, you need a little context about me and my family--I was born in Alabama in 1958; in other words, pre-Civil Rights Act. My family was complex--my mother fought hard and bravely against institutionalized sexism to become one of the first female physicians in Alabama. In medical school, she had a biology teacher who refused to teach a female. Despite overcoming obstacles like that, she could not see any parallel with the civil rights movement, and to the end of her days, remained a staunch racist. I regret that failing in the remarkable woman that was my mother.
My father was an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. There is not a lot to say on that score; I have made my peace with that fact, but I mention it here because it plays a role in the story. I think that he needed to feel superior to a whole group of people by definition, because otherwise, he would have to be evaluated for himself, and he was unable to face that fact head-on. Like my mother, he was very racist.
In radical honesty, I cannot say that I never, ever have had a racist thought myself--I had the poison poured in my ear at a very early age, when I was extremely susceptible to programming for good or for evil. I can't control random words or thoughts that pop into my head; as an adult, what I can do is control my actions, regardless of what thoughts may or may not pop unwelcome and unbidden into my head. I decided long ago, as early as sixth grade, that my parents were just wrong on the subject of race, and that I would not listen to their advice, and I have tried ever since to live that way.
I am not sure how I managed to figure that out at that age, but it is true that I have been influenced by many good people for whom I am grateful. One person I did not learn about until much later in life, and then, only indirectly.
My Aunt Helen owned a furniture store in Birmingham, and she told me this story. She employed an older black man, although she didn't tell me what he worked at. One day, according to Aunt Helen, when I must have been 2 or 3 (I have no conscious memory of this story, myself), my father was typically whaling on me for something or other, when this man dropped what he was doing, walked over and got up in my father's face, and told him, "If I ever see you hit that little girl again, so help me, you will have me to deal with, too." After that, my father did not fundamentally change his ways, but he did not hit me in the furniture store ever again, either.
I believe that for a black man, in pre-Civil Rights Act Alabama, to publicly get up in a white man's face and openly confront him for wrong-doing (especially considering that no one in my family ever defended me against him) just well may be the single bravest and kindest act I have ever been a witness to, even indirectly.
The years have eroded any connections to the place, and all the principals whom I know are dead, so I don't know how I could ever find the man and tell him how grateful I am for his courage. The best I can do is tell the story, and try to act with a similar degree of bravery, if I am ever confronted with standing up directly to a wrong act.