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The Moment Race Mattered: A Haunting Childhood Memory

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When Bernard Holyfield was 5 years old, he was the proud owner of a dog named Lassie, a collie who closely resembled the namesake fictional dog on television.

"And we used to always keep Lassie tied up at the house with a chain, kind of like our protector," Holyfield explains to his friend Charles Barlow, 63, for StoryCorps at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

Bernard grew up in the '60s in Alabama, and later Atlanta, with his younger brother Evander Holyfield, a former heavyweight boxing champ. One day, Bernard recalls, he and Evander were outside their Alabama home playing near Lassie when a white man approached them.

"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," Bernard says.

Their parents had cautioned them about talking to strangers, so the two brothers stayed put. But the man entered their yard.

"Then Lassie began to growl and make his presence known, and the guy kind of reeled back," Bernard explains.

So the man began to taunt the dog. "He charged over into the yard and then pulled back with laughter. After about the third time, Lassie broke the chain and chased him out of the yard," Bernard says.

The brothers fetched the dog, tied him back and resumed playing. About an hour later, a sheriff showed up to their front yard.

"And the drunk came and said, 'Yeah, this is the house where the dog attacked me,' " Bernard recalls.

Their sister called the two inside, where they ran to the windowsill and watched the sheriff.

"And he [sheriff] went and popped up his trunk, pulled out this long double-barreled shotgun. And the next thing, 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," Bernard says.

As kids, the brothers often played the childhood game Cops and Robbers.

"And he and I would just be at each other about, 'Who's gonna be the cop? Who's gonna be the sheriff?' Bernard said. "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 5 years old, that taught me that skin color made a big difference."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.

The interview was recorded as part of StoryCorps Griot — an effort to preserve the stories of African-Americans, undertaken in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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