The Moment Race Mattered: A Haunting Childhood Memory Bernard Holyfield was 5 years old when he learned that skin color made a big difference. He recalls an incident in the early 1960s in Alabama in which a drunken white man approached him and his brother while they were playing on their front lawn.

The Moment Race Mattered: A Haunting Childhood Memory

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It's Friday, time again for StoryCorp, traveling the country recording your stories. As we head into this Martin Luther King Day weekend, a painful childhood memory from the civil rights era. It comes from Bernard Holyfield. He's the older brother of the former heavy weight boxing champ, Evander Holyfield. At StoryCorp, he told a story from the 1960s when they were growing up in Alabama. And just a warning, some listeners may find the graphic descriptions in this story upsetting.

BERNARD HOLYFIELD: Evander and I had a dog named Lassie. He was a collie and he looked just like the dog on TV. And we used to always keep Lassie tied up at the house with a chain, kind of like our protector. One day, when I was about five years old, Evander and I was outside playing and this white man, he was drunk, disheveled, just reeking with alcohol, he was passing by and he stopped and he motioned for Evander and I to come over.

Of course, our parents had always told us don't talk to strangers. We didn't go over and he began to enter the yard. Then Lassie began to growl and make his presence known, and the guy kind of reeled back. And then he began to taunt the dog. You know, he'd charge over into the yard and then pull back and start laughing.

Well, about the third time he did that, somehow Lassie broke the chain and chased him out of the yard. Evander and I went and got the dog back and tied him back up and was playing as usual. And then maybe about an hour later or so, the sheriff showed up. And the drunk came and said, yeah, this is the house where the dog attacked me.

And so my sister told Evander and I, said, you all come in the house. We came in the house and we got up on the windowsill and we're watching the sheriff. And he went and popped up his trunk, pulled out this long double-barreled shotgun. And the next we know, we heard two shots, pow, pow. Each one of the shots was so loud it seemed like it just rattled everything in the house, the windows, everything. I mean my ears were just ringing.

Now, for Evander and I, at five and four years old, we used to play cops and robbers. And he and I would, you know, just be at each other about, who's gonna be the cop? Who's gonna be, you know, the sheriff? And then the sheriff, who was kind of like our hero, had actually shot our dog. We was just kind of in shock. It was just unbelievable.

And that became a kind of a touchstone for me. At five years old, that taught me that skin color made a big difference.

GREENE: Bernard Holyfield speaking with his friend Charles Barlow. They recorded that conversation at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. And their interview will be archived at the Library of Congress You can get the StoryCorp Podcast at

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