Thu June 19, 2014
Editor's Weekly: What I Learned From 'Fatha' Thimes
Gloria Ross’s obituary for radio icon Lou “Fatha” Thimes took me way, way back. Back to the hiss of static on an AM radio in a green Studebaker. Back to a time when the 1950s TV icons were Ozzie and Harriett rather than Don Draper. Back to a grade school classroom where the African-American kids had only recently won the legal right to be present.
At the time, I was oblivious to this monumental fact. Growing up in a modest house on a modest street in Kirkwood, I lived in a cozy, predictable, mostly white world. Yet “Fatha” Thimes became part of the soundtrack.
That was because my teenage brothers thought KATZ was cool. They secured the farthest right car radio button for the station and flipped to it frequently. Our parents found it no more intolerable than the rock and roll on KXOK and WIL, so it stayed. Yet KATZ — pronounced with the accent on the A — didn’t sound like the white rock and roll stations. The DJs had their own favorite tunes and mantras — “Fatha, Fatha, Fatha!”
In Gloria’s obit, Webster University communications professor Art Silverblatt described Thimes’ presence this way: “For years, the Fatha led the African-American community in an ongoing celebration of its culture.”
Gloria chronicled Thimes’ career at KATZ and other stations: “He was at the mic during the segregated ‘50s that tumbled into the turbulent ‘60s when Sam Cooke presaged A Change Is Gonna Come; he was there in the ‘70s when Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On? and he was still around in the ‘80s when the digital age began to change radio and the nation. He played the blues until he could not.”
I would like to say we listened to KATZ to pick up on the great social justice trends of the era. The truth is we listened for the fun of it. Still, we heard something more — sounds from a world we didn’t usually see. At school, we sat side by side with black kids, knew something about their families and shared occasional after-school activities. But we didn’t visit their homes, nor they ours.
On occasion, my father took me to basketball games at Soldan High School, where he was an assistant principal. Once predominantly Jewish, the school had recently become almost entirely African American. After the games, we talked about the cheers because they sounded different from the ones I heard in Kirkwood. We didn’t talk about why the neighborhood had changed, and I would have been too young to understand.
White flight and block-busting were rampant, driven by fear and by those who could reap a profit from the turmoil. My own street was all white, but a few of the nearby blocks were all black. That’s the way it had been and that’s the way it stayed for years.
One of the African-American couples who lived on the next block owned a funeral home and had an organ in their house. Each Christmas Eve, we’d carol outside and they would play along, the lush chords spilling out the door. To a kid’s eyes, the organ was one clear sign that this house and this African-American block were quite unlike the shacks a couple blocks over, where other black families lived. In fact, this block was classier than our block, where the houses had two or three bedrooms but none had an organ. Perhaps these signs are the ways kids decode the intricacies of race and class.
Most — not all — of the white people I knew thought discrimination was wrong as a matter of principle but mainly saw it as an issue for the South. We mostly ignored the ways that laws and attitudes in St. Louis continued to systematically hobble the lives and prospects of the couple with the organ or the families in the shacks. It never occurred to us that the dominant white culture secured certain privileges for us.
Years later, as a teenager, I began to see the injustice more clearly. Decades later, we all continue to grapple with its consequences. Like students in my grade school classes, the many diverse groups that make up the St. Louis region share a space. But we can still remain blissfully ignorant of the experiences of others living in it.
Recognizing that the world looks different from different points of view, I now see, is an essential step toward finding justice and making progress. “Fatha” Thimes wasn’t broadcasting for the white kids in Kirkwood. But along with his music and in spite of ourselves, we began to get the message.