By Merritt D. Long
Reviewed by Victoria Starr Marshall
I thought I’d taken an unabashed look at the white privilege I grew up with. I’ve read books, watched movies, spoken with people of color, done a deep dive into my deeply ingrained, culturally absorbed beliefs and biases, and wrote an essay titled, “Blinded by the White” for this magazine. I should have been ready for some of the disturbing revelations of racism and discrimination by Merritt D. Long in his inspiring memoir, My View from the Back of the Bus, but I still find it difficult to wrap my head around how this could happen—and still does with disturbing regularity—in America.
Long was born in Bessemer, Alabama, at the height of Jim Crow: “I’m the one you called nigger with relish and glee. I’m the one you forced to use the ‘Colored’ restroom in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the prologue begins. The list is long: “I’m the one you and two of your buddies pulled guns on when ten of us were swimming and playing in a lake in the woods that nobody owned … We had no swimming pool—the city-owned swimming pools were for Whites, and Whites only. I’m the one who was invisible, who didn’t count. You thought I would never amount to anything, I’m Merritt Douglas Long.”
It wasn’t just institutionalized racism that Long needed to navigate in his young life. His father was prone to unprovoked violent rages and would beat Long for the smallest perceived infraction. Yet, Long does not hold resentment. Behind the beatings was also a man who worked hard to ensure his sons would have a better future and more opportunity than he did, and that’s the father Long loves.
Long moved to Seattle in 1968 after graduating from Morehouse College and started his career in Washington state government. He and his family moved to Olympia in 1973, where he was hired as a community worker for the Washington State Board Against Discrimination (now the Washington State Human Rights Commission). From there his career started to ascend as the executive director of the Commission for Vocational Education, then later, as the director of the Human Rights Commission. In 1997, then-Governor Gary Locke appointed Long as the state lottery director. “When I think about the arc of my journey from Bessemer, Alabama, to the Washington State Governor’s Office,” Long writes, “I realize it’s the culmination of my life experiences over some 40 years. It has been an amazing and satisfying journey.”
Long’s story is one of resourcefulness, resilience, and perseverance through the almost insurmountable roadblocks our shameful racist culture put in his path. Many people, if not most, are unable to overcome such adverse circumstances. My View from the Back of the Bus is the story of one person who did. I highly recommend it.