Book Review: Sit-Ins, Drive-Ins, and Uncle Sam
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Teenage memories of 1960s North Carolina, with a probing question: What should he have done?
Growing up in the Glenwood section of Greensboro, North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s, Bill Slawter lived in a racially segregated society. His memoir, Sit-Ins, Drive-Ins and Uncle Sam: Coming of Age in the Era of Civil Rights and the Vietnam Draft, gives richly detailed impressions of how a white teenage boy perceived that culture. There is much to be learned here from how Slawter recalls his own youth at the time and how he interprets it from a 21st-century retrospective.
At fourteen, Slawter had to find “regular work” (so his father ordered) in addition to his schoolwork, so he became a paperboy. Every morning, he walked a mile to obtain copies of the Greensboro Daily News, delivered them along his two-mile route, then walked a mile home. As an older teen, he flipped burgers and slung fries at McDonald’s, which his coworkers called “Hamburger Palace” and thought of as “our ‘frat’ house.”
Cars were at the center of the boys’ social lives. They were necessary to enjoy drive-in movie theaters, bowling alleys, and burger joints and to spend the weekend at the beach. The boys’ cars were central to their personal identities, and they were indispensable for wooing girls. One friend had a “souped-up, shiny black ’53 Ford Coupe that was always washed and waxed,” whereas Slawter saved up for a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 convertible. Photographs of period automobiles helpfully illustrate the book.
Though the boys liked cigarettes, beer, firecrackers, and goofing around, their antics were wholesome. A nervous father once made Slawter attend an evangelical tent revival with his daughter, aiming to “harness our hormones” with the threat of hellfire. These episodes are recounted in an amusing, lighthearted way.
In the picture Slawter paints, white Southerners generally did not suffer during segregation (or at least were not always conscious of how segregation affected their lives), and neither did they suffer when it lifted. When restaurants and theaters integrated, most white people admitted that their “food didn’t taste any different and the movies still looked and sounded the same,” and many of them took the opportunity to conveniently forget the past.
But Slawter is aware of the legacy of racism that continues in the United States today, and he does not forget the environment he grew up in. His memoir is filled with political context. He reveals the different ways he saw racial segregation play out: white and Black workers given different job roles by the same employer, or Black customers admitted only when they were serving as a white person’s nanny or chauffeur. A high fence, rope, or sign might serve as a barrier, but often the rule was unspoken.
In those days, Slawter’s interactions with Black people were mostly in professional contexts. His closest friends were white, with the exception of one who was recognizably Arab and treated differently by strangers. This memoir is not defined by the emotions that drove any particular relationships; rather, it is bound by the strands of Slawter’s political awareness.
In the second half of the book, he grapples with his own political inaction and the question of how he might have taken a stand against racism at the time. Although he did not grow up rich, he was “comfortable” with his position in the social hierarchy and “didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how things might be different if my skin were dark.” He wishes today that he’d marched alongside Black protesters in the 1960s or had at least spoken out against racism. “But,” he admits, “I didn’t.” He acknowledges in hindsight that staying silent about injustice may be morally equivalent to perpetrating it. Nonetheless, as a young man, he had felt sure he wouldn’t “ever challenge the white world” that enforced segregation.
What more young white men did personally worry about during the 1960s, he says, was the draft for the Vietnam War. That existential threat “hit home” and “gnawed at us.” Still, even though this policy had more direct personal consequences for him, it did not inspire him to political action. He didn’t want to be drafted, but he “obediently responded as directed by those running the show.” Had there been an anti-war protest in his own city, he says he wouldn’t have gone.
Slawter depicts his North Carolina youth in two competing ways: his nostalgia for his innocent, joyful high school days and his “lingering sense” that he did not do enough to reckon with injustice. His sharp memory for details, enhanced by his generosity in sharing them, expertly transports the reader to 1960s North Carolina.
The question is inevitably put to the reader. We ask ourselves: How would I have felt then? What would I have done? We may ask it in the present tense, too, whoever and wherever we are. The question translates readily: What should I do right now?
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / History
Print Length: 386 pages
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