I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
— Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, Norway, 1964.
Walking on the rail trail in New Paltz several days a week, I wondered if the town, post- Civil War, had been divided — east of the tracks and west of the tracks, rich and poor, emancipated slaves and White colonial settlers — as it still is in so many small towns across America. I also thought about Betsy, and wondered what happened to her.
Betsy and I met at the UC Berkeley housing office when the woman behind the desk introduced us to each other and said there was a furnished two-bedroom apartment available for a reasonable rent at 2441 Haste Street with its front windows overlooking Telegraph Avenue. Neither of us hesitated; we were both desperate to find affordable accommodation before the term started. We moved in later that day.
It wasn’t until we sat down to a take-out dinner in our new apartment that we introduced ourselves properly. I had recently arrived from New York to make up some credits in summer school and decided to stay and finish my degree at UC Berkeley. Betsy had a more complex story. She’d been attending a school in Florida and returned from her junior year abroad pregnant with a biracial baby. There was no question of an abortion. Her parents were pro-life, stalwart members of a conservative church-going community. So they whisked Betsy out of town to a “home” where she gave the baby up for adoption.
“Where are you from exactly?” I asked.
“Muncie, Indiana,” she replied, tears cascading down her cheeks.
In 1929, two married sociologists, the Lynds, published a study about Muncie. They renamed the town Middletown U.S.A. and completely ignored the Black population on the east side of town. The study was — excuse the expression — a whitewash. Muncie was still de facto segregated when Betsy was growing up. It was also the headquarters of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan.
A year later, in 1930, three Black boys were lynched and then incinerated in the nearby town of Marion in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Like many other lynchings of that era, photographs of hanging and burning were sold as postcards.
The bodies of the two boys were retrieved by the pastor of the AME Zion Church in Muncie because there were no Black undertakers in Marion. The congregation gave them a Christian burial in Muncie.
This history of racial terrorism in Indiana, just a year after the publication of Middletown U.S.A., gave me pause.
I remember Betsy’s mother coming to visit her daughter. She spent her entire visit sitting in our living room, refusing to venture outside because of what she called the “weird looking students” of all sizes, shapes and colors walking on Telegraph Avenue. I think she truly believed she’d landed in Sodom or Gomorrah, and that her daughter would end up in hell.
I wondered who had chosen Berkeley — of all places — for Betsy to complete her degree. It was, of course, Betsy, who’d studied abroad for her junior year, a tradition that has a purpose: to broaden. Betsy would be okay, I told myself, as I made plans to move into my boyfriend’s apartment and searched for a suitable replacement flat mate for Betsy.
Memories of Betsy and the town of Muncie resurfaced recently while I was watching Strangers at the Gate, an Academy Award nominated New Yorker documentary about a U.S. Marine who built an IED to bomb his “enemies” at the Islamic Center of Muncie, rose out of hatred thanks to the welcoming Muslim community, many of them Afghan refugees, and became a Muslim himself. It’s a beautiful film about personal transformation, but incomplete in its depiction of the town.
Muncie today has a population of 63,000. Thirty percent live in poverty, about 10.5% are Black, 2.5% are refugees, only 25% of the population is college educated, and the median family income is $36,000.
When I asked Yvonne Thompson, born and raised in Muncie, and now Executive Director of the Muncie Human Rights Commission, how the Black community is doing today, her answer was unequivocal. “Ever since the automotive industry left, we’ve been sliding backwards,” she told me. The General Motors Chevrolet Plant closed in 2006, and the Borg Warner Plant — they made clutches — closed in 2009. Suddenly, 20,000 people in Muncie were unemployed, a catastrophe for many families, Black and White. Thus, the recent Census poverty stats from Muncie, the appearance of gangs in the Black community, the intensifying of a housing crisis, and uninterrupted red-lining. Oddly, the opioid crisis, raging everywhere in the United States, is mostly hitting the poor White community in Muncie.
Why did the resettlement agencies choose Muncie for the Afghan refugees? The interviews in the documentary with members of the Mosque are upbeat and hopeful. And when I talked to Bibi Bahrani, who is featured in the film, she expressed only gratitude for the Governor of Indiana, the Mayor of Muncie, and the warm welcome refugees have received. The Bahranis have lived in Muncie for 36 years, having arrived after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and are now helping new refugees find jobs and homes.
“They keep to themselves,” Thompson explains. “They look after each other. They are a tight, quiet community.”
A community which is still de facto segregated despite the many years of Civil Rights activism and Civil Rights legislation.
Carol Bergman is a journalist and educator living in New Paltz.