Brennan: Heroes proceed with caution

By Tom Brennan |

My first experience with segregation was an eye-opener in a very real sense. My eyes literally went wide.

I grew up in Massachusetts outside a military base where my dad worked. The military was very much integrated in those days and my parents had several black friends.

The base had a sizable contingent of Army Security Agency operatives, a branch of the military specializing in code-breaking and other communications operations. It was widely known by its initials, ASA, and had a reputation for attracting gay people.

I remember one day my family was at an on-base beach when my dad got into a friendly wrestling match with a black buddy. My mother got a kick out of it and chanted, among other things, “Be careful, Daddy, he’s ASA!”

When I graduated from college I decided to get my military service out of the way and enlisted in the Army National Guard. My unit needed a radio-teletype operator so, after basic training in New Jersey, it assigned me to the Southeast Signal School at Fort Gordon, Ga.

Several friends were going to the same place and, though much long-distance travel was then being done by flying, we decided to take a train from Boston to Georgia. It was a long, slow trip and when the train reached northern Georgia we decided to get off and stretch our legs.

Inside the terminal was a waiting room which had two sections, one prominently advertised as White and the other as Colored. I had never seen such a thing and was offended by the idea of segregation so I walked over to the Colored section and sat down.

A black woman in the row ahead of me leaned over and said: “You better get out of here before you get us both in trouble.” I was shocked, but high-tailed it to the White section.

I spent the next four months in southern Georgia and saw a lot of segregation first-hand, but the emotional impact of that first experience was very powerful. It is still with me all these years later.

Millions of people have personal experience with segregation and the heaviest toll, of course, is on those who are discriminated against. But my experience in the American South that day was an important lesson in the need to understand the various impacts of our behavior. Playing the cultural hero can affect people in ways that we don’t understand and can actually hurt the people we intend to help.

There is no simple answer to any of this. The national news of the last week has focused on racial relations and the need for caution in all things, including and perhaps especially in police work.

I have friends and family in police work and enjoy discussing their professional experiences with them when they are in a mood to do so. But my own lurching personal efforts are a reminder that it’s always essential to be sensitive to the situation and inclinations of those whose opinions we seek.

That long-ago day in Georgia gave me a lot to think about. And I’m still thinking.

One Response to Brennan: Heroes proceed with caution

  1. Marlin Savage April 27, 2021 at 9:58 am

    My father was drafted into the Army Air Corps at the beginning of WWII. Being from rural Pennsylvania and having never left the farm prior to being drafted, he had never been exposed to racism.

    50 years later after serving 4 years in Africa and Europe, he was still haunted by an incident that happened in New Orleans while on pass prior to shipping out. He and a southerner who he considered a friend at the time, were walking down the street when a shrunken, elderly, black man greeted them with a good morning and well wishes. The southerner yelled at him, “N**** don’t you speak to me and if you do, you say sir!!!”. “Yes sir, boss, yes sir boss” he replied and hurried away. My father was so shocked that he went numb. Needless to say, that was the end of the “friendship”, however to his dying day, he felt regret that he didn’t follow the elderly man and apologize for the incident.


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