By Guest Columnist DAVID HUGHES DUKE, president of Living Stories Film and Video, which produces video for corporations and non-profit organizations, and creates independent films for public television
I have long known that life is relationships. My parents taught me this, my faith tells me this, and my experience proves it true.
My mother was born in the Bolton community of west Atlanta, a neighborhood of modest income bordered by the mill village of Riverside on the south and by Buckhead on the north. The center of my mother’s life was Collins Memorial United Methodist Church. Mary Carolyn Hughes was christened there in 1922 and married there 20 years later, to an airman on his way to war. It was her church that sustained her when she got the dreaded Western Union telegram.
Lt. Duke disappeared in the skies over Normandy but was found, completed his 30 missions, and returned to build a home in Bolton. My brothers and I were christened at Collins Memorial just as Carolyn had been. Mom and Dad named me David – not after a family member, but a Hebrew king. Mrs. Jeanie Tidwell, my Sunday school teacher, told me David means “beloved.” I believed her because it sounded like love when she said it.
Bolton was a white community. There were black folks living less than a mile from my church, and I never knew them. Bolton Elementary School fed West Fulton High in Grove Park, also all-white. In 1961 Atlanta Public Schools began a slow process of desegregation, but as school opened in the fall of 1964, the black kids at West Fulton formed just more than 50 percent of the student population.
That year West Fulton set the Atlanta record for white flight. By the time I started high school in 1967, the Bolton kids were being bused downtown to O’Keefe High. The city fathers backed away from “forced busing” and installed a voluntary program: Students who wanted to transfer from a school in which their race was the majority to a school in which their race was a minority could do so.
For the first time in my life, I had the chance to meet black people my age. By the time I was a senior at O’Keefe, our cheerleading squads, sports teams, arts programs, and honor societies were all mixed-race. I had friends in all these groups, and my name was suddenly cool. The cheerleaders sang “Duke of Earl” to induce the basketball coach to put me in the game.
My home town was changing, and that was good. But the year I turned 22, my name also changed. The Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was elected to the Louisiana state legislature. DAVID DUKE appeared in two-inch type on front pages all over the country.
To this day, I almost never meet an African American without my name creating a barrier.
That first moment of contact is clouded by projections that have nothing to do with me. I think it gives me a tiny glimpse of how black Americans must have felt, and still feel, almost 60 years after the start of Civil Rights Movement.
My name has now hit the papers again. Television and social media beam it into outer space and bounce it back to every country in the world. David Duke is proclaiming as confidently as ever the anti-American, anti-human, anti-Gospel message that my father and many others fought against from 1941 to 1945. The violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 is only the latest in a resurgence of venom not seen since the days of the Freedom Riders. Hatred has been emboldened. Black churches are being terrorized and Jewish cemeteries desecrated.
Where does such poison come from? Why does it stubbornly persist? I don’t understand the causes, but I do know an antidote. Dr. Walter Kimbrough, beloved former pastor of Cascade Road United Methodist Church, told me that racial healing can happen only in the heart – and the only way it can spread is from one heart to another.
I am blessed in this regard. As a filmmaker, I have opportunities to form relationships with many kinds of people, and the love that surrounded me as a child makes me open to them. Filmmaking for me is a relational medium.
Twelve years ago I spent three days interviewing African Americans in Summer Hill, the traditionally black community in Cartersville, Georgia. I sat at the feet of Mrs. Susie Wheeler, well into her 90s, and she became my own grandmother. When people see the film, she becomes theirs. People from all over the country tell us that “Summer Hill” changed their attitudes toward race.
Miracles do happen; I see them every day. My Sunday school teacher is now 93 years old and teaching black, Hispanic, and white children at Collins Memorial. My old friends from high school, Cindy and Jimmy, have moved back to the community and established a food pantry and other outreach programs. Collins is the catalyst for a fresh flowering of the neighborhood. Georgia’s film industry has discovered the lovely old church; if you saw the wedding scene in “Hidden Figures,” you were visiting my spiritual cradle.
Who knows? Perhaps one day my namesake will open himself to a friendship with someone of “The Other” – perhaps one of the Jewish people he fears so much. If he does, he may discover something:
In Hebrew, “David” means “beloved.”