Negroes in the Neighborhood

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
In 1961 Georgia, to have negroes in your neighborhood was cause enough to cuss out your white neighbor who invited them in:

I was ordered from the yard and called a “Communist nigger-lovin’ son of a bitch”

assault him action-movie style,

the man of the house, planting his hands on his porch posts, kicked me in the chest

drive his family out of town,

my wife went with the children to her mother’s for a couple of weeks to escape the turmoil

and threaten to destroy his home, possessions, and even the lives of his wife and three small children,

our landlady was reporting a bomb threat we had received.

Fifty-four years ago in The Atlantic Monthly, Pastor J. McRee Elrod reflected on the violent repercussions of committing the unforgivable sin: inviting a group of black churchgoers to his home for a potluck.

Undeterred by a bomb threat and porch-side beatdown, Elrod remained in the neighborhood, determined to welcome all “brethren” into his home:

be they American Negro, the many Orientals among my students, or those of our white neighbors still willing to come.

I understand the instinct to laugh at this essay—the title is literally “I Invited Negroes to My Home” (pdf). It’s laughing at the ridiculous, cathartic, this would never happen today quality of it. America is past this. There are black families living in predominantly white neighborhoods. One in particular lives in the most powerful home in the world, where there’s a black woman dancing on her back lawn for the world to see.
The idea of progress is eternally alluring, especially in a country with a bloody history in anti-black racism, especially in a moment where racial wounds are so regularly pronounced in media. And then here, from 1961, a suggestion of progress. However desperate and unearned, laughing at this article sounds like a sigh of relief. To be able to name some part of this bleeding as absurd, as past-tense, as history, is to finally be able to breathe.