I just spent an hour under the spell of an absolutely fascinating 82-year old white man who helped change the course of social history. All while eating a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread and a clementine. If I'd known I was going to be in the presence of greatness, I'd have brought a more impressive lunch.
The man was civil rights activist Paul Gaston and he was at the Library of Virginia to discuss his new book Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea. Gaston grew up in Fairhope, the Utopian Alabama community founded by his grandfather in 1894 and later run by his father. It was a community devoted to balancing the rights of the individual with the claims of society. It also refused entry to blacks.
I wasn't surprised to learn that the group began chipping away at its founding principles almost from the beginning. Despite that, Gaston grew up believing that there was a possibility of a just social order, as did the intellectuals and reformers who were attracted to Fairhope.
By the 1950s and his graduation from college though, Fairhope had become a right wing conservative place and his mother advised him to create his own Utopia in the larger world. He began by taking a job teaching at UVA, mainly because he sensed the great changes were coming to the south and he wanted to be a part of them.
He chose to teach a Southern history class, intending to hold up a mirror to white Southerners and their beliefs. Several of his former students were at the lecture and shared how significant his class had been to them, mainly for the perspective it had provided at the time.
Gaston also dove head-first into the Civil Rights movement and his extensive participation in first UVA's "coat and tie" demonstrations and later more radical attempts to further the movement. Like his grandfather, he believed that it's always changes from below that creates social change. In fact he said that the theme of his book is that simply talking to people doesn't work. "Direct action at the local level was the only thing that would work," he said.
During the question and answer period, Gaston was asked about whether he'd known William Faulkner at UVA. "We met at adjacent urinals at Cabell Hall," he shared. As Faulkner was zipping up, he turned to Gaston and drawled, "Good morning, suh," to which Gaston answered in kind. And that was the end of that.
"You wanna know anything else about Faulkner?" this wry and passionate man then teased us. "He was difficult to talk to and almost never answered questions." Which would have made Faulkner about as different from Gaston as possible, because our speaker had a brilliant response or compelling anecdote for everything asked of him today.
When asked how he had taught Southern history, he deadpanned, "I still have all my lecture notes, but I didn't bring them today." His answer involved teaching those of deeply-ingrained privilege what it was like for others. He taught what slavery was like for the families and about honor in the Old South, such as how duels came about. "Only a gentleman would shoot another gentleman."
As the time allotted for the lecture ran out, this sit-in participant who had challenged the status quo at UVA, this man who had had his tires flattened for participating in demonstrations, this man who fought tirelessly for changes in the civil rights of blacks, summed up the lecture.
"Approach Virginia history like you would approach a Virginia tea. With respect." And gusto, I would add. Paul Gaston exuded a gusto I only hope to have at his age.