Nelson Cummings is no stranger to the face of racism right here in our fine city of Madison.
Cummings, as many will remember, was the first executive director of the Urban League of Greater Madison. He no sooner had accepted the job in 1968 than he quickly discovered Madison may not be as enlightened in its views of race as it pretended to be.
When he and his wife Marlene and their young sons tried to rent an apartment or house in their new city they were told by landlords that the property was no longer for rent when it was discovered that the family was African-American. He had similar problems a few years later when he tried to buy a house and had to take a couple to court who had clearly reneged on accepting his offer to purchase after they learned he was black.
So he's been viewing with interest the ongoing discussion in The Capital Times about Madison race relations that has been generated by the compelling Cap Times' recent cover story written by Rev. Alex Gee.
It may be 45 years later -- and, yes, there has been some progress, he says -- but Nelson Cummings still sees the subtle hints of racism around the city he has called home all these years.
He recounts a recent visit to a Madison bank he has patronized for years. Cummings is one of those people who saves his change for weeks and then takes it to the bank to exchange the coins for bills. He stopped at the bank's drive-up window to exchange the money and was asked if he had an account at the bank. He replied that he did and the teller, who was African-American herself, was about to make the exchange when another teller came forward and demanded to see Cummings' driver's license.
He showed it, but after he drove away he said to himself, "wait a minute, why did I have to show an ID when all I was doing was exchanging one form of cash for another? Could it have been because I was black?" Incensed, he went back to the bank, withdrew his five-figure savings account and went to the bank's main office downtown to complain.
When he told a bank officer his experience, the officer replied, "Well, I'm not going to fire the guy."
"I didn't want anybody fired, that wouldn't have solved anything," Cummings told me. "I wanted the bank to know that as a longtime customer I was offended and was hoping the bank would find this an opportunity to use as a training moment."
But, the reaction Cummings received sent a signal to him that nothing would change.
Cummings is a well-known figure about town. After serving the Urban League, he taught high school for 25 years and is a longtime member of the Downtown Rotary Club. His boys graduated from West High and have all gone on to graduate from prestigious universities. Casey Cummings was a standout football player at West who a starting running back for Northwestern University while going to school there and his wife, Marlene, served in the administrations of two Wisconsin governors.
But there isn't anything he can do about the color of his skin. He just wishes Madison would come to recognize that and begin to understand why its black citizens sometimes get uncomfortable.