Veteran reflects on years of progress in civil rights

Published 4:59 pm Friday, January 17, 2014

Barbara White, commander of American Legion Post 343 in Clanton, has vivid childhood memories of the racial tensions that permeated the country during the 1950s and '60s.

Barbara White, commander of American Legion Post 343 in Clanton, has vivid childhood memories of the racial tensions that permeated the country during the 1950s and ’60s.

Barbara White was a child growing up in Chilton County when racial tensions came to a head in America in the late 1950s and 1960s.

White, 59, of Clanton, remembers watching news programs on television depicting civil rights demonstrations and listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches about racial equality during his reign as the primary spokesman for black people and civil rights.

At such a young age, White said she didn’t understand why people couldn’t be polite to each other.

“I just thought that we’re all made the same, we all bleed blood the same,” White said. “I couldn’t understand as a child why we couldn’t get along. As I got older, I understand now much more than I did then.”

White attended a Catholic school and then Chilton County Training School until public schools integrated in the late ’60s.

When she transferred to Chilton County High School, White started to grasp the magnitude of the emotional chasm between blacks and whites.

“It was mixed in the Catholic school, so we didn’t really feel it,” White said. “I think when it really hit me was when I transitioned to the high school. It was hard going through.”

White experienced discrimination and aggression first-hand from one of her white classmates.

“She slapped me in my face, and all I could see was the slap,” White said. “That’s the only incident I really had. I know it was trying times for her and myself. But now we talk.”

White graduated from CCHS in 1973 and joined the military.

“They were taking the men, and I was concerned I wouldn’t get a husband, so I joined the military to go where the men were,” White said, laughing. “I still don’t have a husband. The moral of the story is I married the military, and I never divorced the military so I’m still married to it.”

White served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and 23 days, during which she was a non-commissioned officer in charge; served in promotions; filed death reports for veterans that were deceased; handled compassionate reassignments (when soldiers have family members that are sick, and they need to be reassigned to a base closer to their family members); and handled awards and decorations for the military.

She is commander of American Legion Post 343 in Clanton, as well as senior vice commander and service officer of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 33.

White said she thinks her leadership has had a positive impact on her hometown.

“In some ways I have when it comes down to assisting our veterans and their family members, but I still have a long way to go,” she said. “I’m trying to assist veterans and really trying to educate the veterans on their benefits and everything they’re entitled to.”

Although she has seen improvements in how people of different races get along here, White said she hopes more progress is on the horizon.

“It has improved, but we still have a lot to do,” White said. “I would like to see equality of jobs for all people if they meet the qualifications, and that everyone should be given a fair chance at whatever it is they want to accomplish. Everybody should be treated fairly.”

White also wants to see her county expand in areas like economic development in the future.

“I know I’m 59 and Chilton County has been here for years and years,” White said. “I would actually like to see it grow. A lot of stuff still has to be done.”