It's often said that opposites attract. And that certainly can be said of former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen. Over a decade ago, on Valentine's Day, William Cohen, then a U.S. senator, married Janet Langhart, a former television personality, in the U.S. Capitol. He is white and she is African-American. He is a republican and she is a democrat. The were invited on TODAY to talk about their new book, “Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Romance.” Read an excerpt:
My wife Janet and I entered this world under dramatically different circumstances. She is black and I am white. I was born in Bangor, Maine, and she in Indianapolis, Indiana. I, the oldest son of a Jewish father and a Protestant Irish mother, spent my early years living on the third floor of a tenement building located on a street that bordered on what was known as “The Devil’s Half Acre” — the redlight district of a small city. It was a street filled with immigrant families that hailed mostly from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Poland, and Russia. There was only one black family in the neighborhood, and not more than a handful in the entire city of nearly forty thousand people. These “Negroes” were accepted by the community, provided, of course, they “stayed in their place.”
Janet spent her youth under the watchful eye of a single-parent mother, a Southern Baptist woman who, when not living in the homes of white people for whom she worked as a domestic, was forced to move from one boardinghouse to another, until she was able to enter a segregated government housing project reserved principally for blacks who had family members serving in the armed forces. While there were no overtly racist signs posted in public places in Indiana, except for the occasional sign that read “restricted,” blacks were systematically denied access to opportunities that were extended to whites as a matter of right. Education, housing, and employment opportunities were limited in quality and scope. Mixing in movie theaters was strictly prohibited. Prime seats on the first floor of the theater were for whites, while those for blacks were put in the remote balconies. Miscegenation laws (prohibiting the mixing of races) were deeply ingrained in the social structure and culture. Blacks and whites were said to be different, and “never the twain should meet.” Under no circumstances were they permitted to marry, and surely, never in a place of hallowed significance or with the blessing of the ruling political establishment.
What a difference six decades makes. Neither one of us ever imagined that we would one day move from the narrow streets of our youth to places of prominence in our chosen professions, deliberately ignore the social taboos of our times, get married in the Capitol of the United States, and go on to serve and represent our country and our armed forces around the world. It remains a testament to the promise of America that justice may be delayed, but cannot be denied; that rank prejudice cannot flourish in the sunlight; and that anything is possible when the heart is released from the chains of ignorance.
The role that racism has played in America’s history is ugly. The fear, hatred, and murderous violence it has generated may be traced to some primordial cellular structure. We leave discovery of racism’s origin to social scientists. All of us today can see proof that, whatever their origin, crimes against humanity no longer enjoy a socially safe harbor. This is not to say that the struggle for equal rights has been achieved or that we have seen the end of racism, as some have declared. The eagerness to strike out against those who are different in color, race, or creed in times of physical danger or economic distress remains ever present. The profiling by law enforcement officials of those not seen as “one of us” is practiced, even though denied. But dragging our darkest and worst instincts into the open offers us a hope that we will continue the search to reconcile our practices with our professed ideals.
Excerpted from "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Romance" by William S. Cohen with Janet Langhart Cohen. Copyright @ 2007 by William S. Cohen. All rights reserved. Published by No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.