When Louis Willie was 13 years old, he boarded a Dallas streetcar and made his way to the back, past the “Colored” sign, where it was safe for him to sit. It was a September morning, during the Depression years, and he was on his way to school.
Soon the car was filled. A middle-aged white man lumbered down the aisle. Seeing no empty seats, he looked at Willie and said, “Get up, boy.”
“No,” Louis said.
The man glared. “I said get up, boy.”
Now Louis’ heart began to race. He looked for help. He saw a black man sitting across the aisle. “Mister, I’m in the colored section. Do I still have to get up?” Louis asked.
“Son,” the man answered, softly, “yes, you do.”
The shame. The helplessness. He never forgot those feelings. He remembered them through high school, through college, through graduate school up North, at Michigan, where he was the only black in his class to earn an master of business administration degree. “It still burns in my heart,” he says.
And now, more than 50 years later, Louis Willie, a successful Alabama businessman, has been asked once again by white men to stand up. This time, however, they said please. This time, they were almost desperate, they needed a black to break the color barrier at Shoal Creek Golf Club near Birmingham, Ala., where the PGA Championship, scheduled for Aug. 9-12, had become a tinderbox set to explode in their faces.
And because this is important, and because he is that rare type of individual who has absorbed hatred yet has never taken to hating, Louis Willie said yes. He would join. He can’t really golf too well, but he would join. He would be the first. That sound you hear is a mountain being moved, by a gentle, 66- year-old businessman.
“I guess I better take some practice swings somewhere,” he said Wednesday, laughing. “My handicap is a little embarrassing, you know.”
But then, this thing has never been about handicaps. Not the golf kind, anyhow. Ever since Hall Thompson, 67, the founder of the club, announced that the Shoal Creek members “have a right to associate with whomever we chose. . . . We will not be pressured into accepting blacks,” the pressure has been on to do exactly that. Sponsors dropped out. Protesters gathered. This is the kind of club hosting the PGA Championship? The story grew from local sidelight to national front page. It crawled inside our consciences, an ugly worm thatreminded us that, for all our supposed progress in racial relations, we still have a lot of locks on the doors.
“To be honest, before this incident, everybody took the all-white policy for granted,” says Willie. “After all, Shoal Creek was not alone.”
All too true. In fact, it is fairly standard for country clubs across the U.S. to segregate according to race, religion, or national origin. The
“official” policy, of course, is open admission. This is the reality: Only someone sponsored by a member will be considered, and then, he must be voted in by a committee of members. It’s like a tree house. Like a high school clique. Peer pressure builds the wall, and it is strong and impenetrable. We don’t want any of them in our club.
So prevalent is this attitude that a large number of tournaments on the professional golf tour — which are telecast to millions of homes each weekend
— are hosted by whites-only clubs, including the Masters. And until now, almost nobody complained.
Aren’t we past this? Doesn’t it sound like Jim Crow, like something out of the ’50s? It does. But then racism never had an overdue date. It eats time; it falls by inches. Finally, if we are lucky, it gives.
So now Louis Willie, the son of a Pullman porter and a schoolteacher, will golf at Shoal Creek. His membership, offered by Thompson himself, waives the
$35,000 entry fee and includes full privileges, including sponsoring other members. This, no doubt, has quietly enraged many white members, who still carry several clubs of prejudice in their bags. They probably wish the PGA never dropped in on their precious real estate.
Willie anticipates them. He knows they will smile, shake his hand, then grumble after he walks away. “I am not naive,” he says, “I know about two-facedness. I know about tokenism. But the welfare of our community is the most important thing. A divided community is never good. If suffering a little two- facedness is the only sacrifice I have to make to bring harmony back to our city, I will gladly do it.”
You wonder how one man gets to be so wise. But then, you wonder a lot of things with this story. How many Americans — although they would never say it out loud — feel that Shoal Creek had the right to close its doors, that people who pay money ought to be allowed to set the rules? For all the colors that have melted together in our country, there is still a sense of “us and them” — between whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, rich and poor. It is historic, perhaps even rooted in human nature. It is one door you can’t just kick in. You chop at it, you whittle, you slap, you bang.
You golf. Louis Willie says he has been inside Shoal Creek only once, to watch the 1984 PGA — which was held without protest — but he intends to go there now, beginning with a dinner at the restaurant with his wife. Then, he says, he has a lot of friends “who are chomping at the bit to play that course.”
And he laughs. He is amused at any suggestion that he is somehow a hero. He says he is merely a concerned citizen of Birmingham, president of the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co., which also owns construction and cemetery concerns. He notes that in years past, Alabama had “white cemeteries and black cemeteries,” but now blacks are being buried in white cemeteries, whereas whites still refuse to be interred alongside blacks. Some prejudices, obviously, die more slowly than others.
But they do die, and one stupid prejudice dies today. Shoal Creek should force other country clubs to follow suit, to establish truly open membership. And Louis Willie, who once surrendered his seat to hatred, will now, half a century later, have the chair pulled out for him. True, his putting may be suspect, but he knows this much: You aim for the green. And green, after all, is the only color that should matter in golf.