WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Transforming a Personal History of Racism

Dec 15, 2014

The holidays can bring out the compassionate side of people.

Some might be inspired to donate to charities or take on volunteer work. For one central Illinois man, helping the less fortunate is something he does on a daily basis.

But it wasn't always that way.

Jim and Debbie Pauley at their home
Credit Rachel Otwell

Jim Pauley, 52, has spent most of his life as a self-admitted racist. He grew up in poverty in rural Sangamon County, near Auburn. For him, bigotry was a family affair.

“My parents were extremely racist, my grandparents were extremely racist … When I was being taught racism I thought nothing of it - I thought that was the right thing, to hate others who weren't like me,” admitted Pauley.

Pauley said his young life was also full of drugs and violence, and he was in and out of jail. Through it all, the racism was a constant.

“Mine was extreme - to the point where I had attended (Ku Klux) Klan rallies here in Springfield. I wasn't a member of the Klan but I would attend the meetings when they'd hold them at the state capitol,” Pauley said.

It was something he taught his three daughters. He said, “I would have to circle the restaurant to make sure there were no black people in the restaurants.”

He said he didn’t allow his children to be around black people whenever he could control it.

Pauley said the turning point was a trip he took after giving in to persuasion from members of a church in Sherman.  He agreed to drive a truck full of food and clothing for the needy to Tennessee.

“The majority of the people in Nashville where I started at were black - and to go down the line of people who were there to feed - I had to interact with them, and I found out they're just human beings,” Pauley said.

Passing out McDonalds hamburgers near the railroad tracks in downtown Springfield
Credit Jim Pauley

“Within that first hour, I was a broken man. I was back in the van, lying on the floor crying my eyes out. I had never been exposed to anything like that. And I've never been the same from that point on.”

Pauley started organizing his own trips - taking friends and family to inner cities to help the homeless.

Pauley and his wife Debbie have teamed up with Contact Ministries in Springfield, a faith-based shelter that houses single women and their children. They prepare many meals for the residents. Now, one bedroom in their apartment contains donated food such as canned beans and bread. They also have deep freezers full of donated meat. They eventually want to start their own shelter to help others.

So how does someone change so dramatically? Jim Pauley credits God. And he believes his sense of compassion was something he was born wit but hid behind the curtain of racism, violence, drugs, and alcohol.

“I think compassion has always been a side of me, but I didn't want to let it out - the only way I can rationalize it is that I thought it was a sign of weakness to love others,” he said.

Now, Pauley says it's those who need the most that he wants to spend his free time with.

“Some of these people can't help themselves, they can't help their mental illness and they can't help their addictions - it doesn't make them bad people,” Pauley said.

“Behind a lot of these alcoholics, behind a lot of these mentally ill people are some very amazing lovable people.”