Moments of Moral Clarity

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

Probably each of us has had an experience that awakened our conscience, one that changed the way we looked at the world and ourselves, a moment of moral clarity that made us reflect, “I was blind, but now I see.”

As a young boy growing up in the rural south, water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored” were as normal to me as men and women restrooms. So when my grandmother took me to Woolworth one day, what caught my eye was not the separate lunch counter for “Colored”; it wasn’t even the fact that the “Colored” counter was located on a mezzanine just below the one for whites, which was a social statement, in and of itself. No, what was out of place was the “white” man sitting among all of those black people.

“Grandma, what is that white man doing there,” I asked.

Grandma surveyed the lower counter, then turned to me in a whisper, “Oh, he only looks white. He’s just very, very light, son.”

Somehow her answer failed to satisfy my young mind. I stole another look at the man at the counter. But try as hard as I could, the man was not “colored,” he was white. Obvious to my confusion, grandma leaned in and explained how differences in skin pigmentation can make one appear white.

For the next half hour, between sips on my cherry Coke, I glanced down at the mezzanine. It didn’t help that there were customers in our section darker than the man below. I remained puzzled.

That is not to say I didn’t have prejudices of my own; I certainly did. But that day was my first awareness that there was something much deeper than skin color here. In the following years, my conscience was stirred each time I returned to that scene. Nevertheless, it would be much later before another experience would bring me full-face with the evil underlying my thinking.

The West Wing
For Dr. Richard Selzer a moment of moral clarity came in the west wing of a university hospital in 1976. It was there that he witnessed the abortion of a 19-week old fetus involving a needle injection technique. In the Esquire article, “What I Saw at the Abortion Clinic,” Selzer writes,

I see something! It is unexpected, utterly unexpected… I see a movement—a small one. But I have seen it. And then I see it again. And now I see that it is the hub of the needle in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish…

Dr. Selzer goes on to say that the vision of the fetus struggling for life will be ever etched in his mind; and, that whatever language is used to defend abortion is powerless to erase that image. “For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?”

I was blind, but now I see.

The Streets of Birmingham
Shortly after that lunch in Woolworth’s, I heard terms in the schoolyard like “high yellow” and “mulatto,” which I later learned wasn’t a matter of one’s skin color, but of one’s bloodline. That made it sensible, giving me a rational basis for discriminating between “us” and “them.”

Then on May 2, 1963, Birmingham firefighters turned fire hoses and dogs on a group of young civil rights protesters. Although I had heard about this shocking incident, it didn’t become real until I saw the actual footage years later. The vision of young black students pounded to the ground by water guns, and others with their clothes and flesh ripped open by German shepherds shook me to the core. But more chilling was seeing that this wasn’t the act of angry citizens; it was the work of law officers acting on the orders of elected officials. That became my moment of moral clarity. No more could I justify my complacence about racial prejudice.

I was blind, but now I see.

The Streets of New York
Moments of moral clarity can also come upon an entire community. Dr. Selzer tells of an experience that jolted a neighborhood out of moral slumber. Continue reading here.

Originally published October 28, 2017.

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