Most people that really know me know that I’m a huge fan of the The Andy Griffith Show. In the past, I’ve made bold, tongue-in-cheek comments such as these: “I really don’t trust people that don’t like The Andy Griffith Show” and “When I watch Andy, I just feel like everything is going to be alright.” The truth is, this show (note: I’m a black-and-white version loyalist) has often served as a balm agent in my life. It’s the kind of show that helps me to sleep well at night, and often depicts the kind of life that I wish that I had.
My favorite character, of course, is Andy. This calm, pensive sheriff always seems to have control over every situation. He is the master of all of life’s jurisdictions. He teaches his son Opie the value of a dollar, of being honest and treating everyone with fairness and respect. He has the ability to show grace but still maintains a level of toughness when situations require. The dynamic between Andy and his bumbling deputy, Barney Fife, is often a hilarious depiction of a dichotomy between old sage and naïve buffoon.
Andy and Barney live in the town of Mayberry, which, in an ideal world, might be a quintessential 1960s American town. A few weeks ago, I realized something about the show that had previously escaped my attention, something I am ashamed to admit. I realized that there were virtually no African-Americans in The Andy Griffith Show. All of the major characters—Andy, Barney, Aunt Bee, Opie, Otis, Gomer, Goober, Floyd, Clara—were white. In reality, it wasn’t a black-and-white show; just white. My mind is searching for a remembrance of any African-American character on the show (Andy addicts, please help me)!
While the show is set in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, I recently discovered that it was filmed on a set in Los Angeles. Whether or not this filming locale has any significance whatsoever to the absence of African-Americans to the screen, one may never know. Sidney Poitier was proving during that era that African-Americans could indeed act; nevertheless African-Americans were not prevalent on American sitcoms until the mid-1960s with guess who—Bill Cosby—who starred as Alexander Scott, master of espionage in the drama I Spy.
Was The Andy Griffith Show’s omission of African-Americans intentional or simply a product of the times? Regardless of the answer, The Andy Griffith Show is not an accurate portrayal of life in the South during the 1960s. No, in direct contrast with this idyllic white world of Mayberry was the real South—the South that burned with crosses in front yards, marched boldly over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, wrote letters from the Birmingham jail, stood alongside in nonviolent protests, sent fearful young men to war, shouted at one another over segregation, and at times resulted in bloody murder.
I often think about the national events that were taking stage when The Andy Griffith Show was filmed. The same year the program debuted, students at North Carolina A&T “sat in” at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina (possibly only a few miles from Mayberry). The next year saw freedom riders trekking through the South on buses to protest discrimination in interstate travel. The very next year, James Meredith ran through the tape at Ole Miss to become the first African-American to enroll in the Oxford, Mississippi university. In Alabama, George Wallace made his famous appraisal “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent African-Americans from enrolling in the University of Alabama during the third season of The Andy Griffith Show, 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were signed during Andy’s fourth and fifth seasons.
Imagine what kind of an impact a show about race might have had on American society and how it would have transcended a half-century later. But this was just a television program. Let me tell you about a few African-American characters that have had major roles in my life.
One of the most indelible moments of my childhood occurred after high school basketball practice when I rode with my dad to drive a couple of my African-American teammates home to a section of Jasper called “Cokeoven.” Passing by the dilapidated houses that sagged toward the ground made a profound impact on my life as I sat in the passenger side with a sweat-soaked, black-and-white reversible practice jersey. As we dropped off my teammates, I could not help but think of how truly blessed I was to live in a nice house and share in the pleasantries of a sturdy domicile. But I learned something else as an athlete. I learned that sports were an outlet where whites and African-Americans could come together to pursue a valuable, worthwhile objective: victory. Sports furnished this type of training ground for the races, and some of my best friends to this day are the African-American boys whose sweat and tears have forever seeped through that parquet floor at Songer Gymnasium on the campus of Walker High School in Jasper, Alabama.
I think about the lovely faces at Bethel A.M.E. church in Homewood, the friends I made that swayed and prayed and held hands and embraced one another in that cramped House of God. I think about their prayers and their reverence for the one true Holy God, their desperate, kneeling alter calls, and their showing that the term “Sunday best” had less to do with the clothes they wore than the fervor in which they worshipped.
The contributions of African-Americans to the Southern vista is incalculable and largely, untold. I think about all the many times I’ve cried—powerful tears—when listening to the oceanic, beautiful sounds of Lionel Richie of Tuskegee’s “Still.” Or the time when I climbed into my best friends lap when Alabama running back Dennis Riddle snagged a screen pass and stepped into that rectangled paydirt known as the end zone on a cold November evening. Or the joy I feel watching Mississippi’s Morgan Freeman bring alive the character of Red in James Darabont’s masterpiece, The Shawshank Redemption. Or the soothing nurse who brought my father a cup of water as he lay dying. Yes, there are many more, and I think about these things.
I try to imagine what it is to live as an African-American in this country of ours. I cannot begin to understand what this feels like. I do understand that the racial issues in this country can either destroy us or unite us. As Jesus said and President Abraham Lincoln echoed, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” And it still cannot.
The next time a racist thought enters my mind, I pray that the shadows of faceless African-Americans who sunk their boots into the muddy soils across this earth on the battlegrounds of freedom will stop me. Those soldiers who stood face-to-face with death will tell you that race and creed matters little when the scope of an enemy sniper has you in his crosshairs. And it should not matter if we are at the grocery store or at Wal-Mart.
I know that I’m a better man for having lived in the South and been exposed to the racial challenges that this region of the country deals with every day. Working things out in this regard is forever worth it and the healing that becomes of it will be the most profound statement for change this world may have ever seen.
Now to Jesus. Notice his words in Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is notable that our Savior’s words, which are not debatable, didn’t say, “Love all of your white neighbors as yourself” or “Love all of your black neighbors as yourself.” Instead, Jesus purposes for us to love all of our neighbors, regardless of race, color, creed, beliefs, gender, sexuality, and religion. Some may say that this sounds awfully liberal for a person to say. But this idea has nothing to do with one’s political leaning. Loving all people is something we should strive to do even if it is not within our makeup to even try. I struggle with this every day as I have encounters with people who make me angry and don’t act like me.
Maybe one day we can move toward a world more like the town of Mayberry, with a little more variety. I just hope that when we get there that I’ll be able to listen to Lionel Richie whenever I want.