1961. small town, North Alabama.
One day the topic was the recent attention to segregation of schools in the South. I knew (but had never seen) that the “colored” school was just down the road and was said to be falling down. The inference was that “they” didn’t take care of what they had. I didn’t question those opinions. What did I know, new girl in town?
Even though we had lived in Alabama most of my school years from 5th grade on, I began school in Detroit and spent 3rd and 4th grades in Lansing schools. 5th grade we moved from Michigan to Alabama, the year of culture shock for me. The teacher called on me early in the school year and asked me to say the word “night”. Not understanding her motive, I repeated the word, pronouncing the “i” as a “Yankee”, not as a Southerner. She praised me, saying that I said it correctly. Great! Now I was labeled. The last thing I wanted. Now I was the kid who talked funny but the teacher said it was the “right” way to talk. Since I had changed schools every year through that grade, I learned the best plan to fit in was to not be noticed. I took my time learning the dynamics of the class, observing the most popular kids, noticing who always knew the answers. Basically, lay low until I made a few friends.
Ninth grade, first year in high school, found me still following that plan. The older I got, the more cautious I was at speaking out in a class discussion. So whatever possessed me to speak out in Coach’s civic class?
I listened to his opinion on the “troubles”. These were the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks had refused to get out of her seat in 1955, but I was only in 5th grade, had just moved to Alabama, and paid little attention to the news. However, in 1961 nearby Anniston, Alabama was the scene of a bus of freedom riders burning. That made national news and was close to home.
Something about Coach’s attitude and comments just rolled around inside me. I felt that familiar inclination bubbling up; my voice was not going to stay quiet. (This habit of giving my opinion has followed me all the way to age 65.) I finally raised my hand. When he called on me, this is what I said. “I don’t know what the big deal is about. I’ve been to school with Negroes, and it doesn’t make that much difference.” Hardly a rousing testimony or persuasive argument for integration of schools. But it felt bold.
The thing is, I didn’t clarify “going to school with Negroes”. In one of my schools in Michigan I remember a small group of students who were African-American – maybe three or four. So my experience was certainly limited and hardly worth mentioning. Except I did.
As I reflect on that day, I remember getting a nervous twitch in my stomach when I raised my hand. This coach was not warm and fuzzy. He fit the stereotype of a gruff, tough, no-nonsense coach. His voice rumbled in his chest, and he scared me to death. The funny thing about memory is that I don’t even remember his response, except that for some reason he didn’t yell at me or jump down my throat. The memory is vivid because I felt bold speaking out. In the grand scheme of things it meant little. I just didn’t understand the scope of what was happening in our state. People in cities all over Alabama were beaten, put in jail, and killed because they fought for equality and integration.
The culture of a small southern town did not offer many opportunities to become “socially aware” of the injustice of segregation. I can’t remember any of my friends taking up the cause or getting involved in the movement. Buses of freedom riders did not come through our town; no protest marches lined Main Street. We didn’t have a lunch counter so there were no sit-ins.However, I could see the discrimination around me, the vast difference in our schools and opportunities.
The only significant event I remember was Daddy coming home from a meeting with the church elders to tell us they had been “alerted” to the possibility of “outsiders” coming into town and that visitors might come to church. Daddy said the decision was to welcome them into the service and let them sit on the back row. It was the custom in those days of white and black churches to visit each other during revivals. This would be no different. No one showed up, so there was no event.
Few events of the Civil Rights movement stick out in my memory, except for George Wallace. It was hard to miss his famous “standing in the schoolhouse door” of the University of Alabama to keep two African American students from enrolling. That was in 1963; but I remember being more interested in boys, school events, club meetings, and football games.
Martin Luther King spent time in the Birmingham jail during my sophomore and junior years in high school, and four little girls were murdered when their church was bombed, but everything we heard was through the lenses of local media or the “outsiders” as most adults described the cause of our troubles.
There was one important change in our lives my senior year in high school; we moved to Gadsden, Alabama and Daddy was no longer a full-time preacher. He became a deputy sheriff, working for a man he respected, Dewey Colvert. We heard a more personal point of view in those years. Daddy told us stories he heard from the State Troopers who worked the Selma March — the view from the locals whose yards were used for urinating by the marchers. You won’t find much in old newspapers about protests in Etowah County in those days. The sheriff found a way to keep the peace during those years of unrest. He didn’t do it by force but by working and communicating with leaders in both white and black communities.With so much disturbing news footage of violence in Birmingham – police dogs, water hoses, beatings, a peaceful community seemed like success.
My real education about diversity and equality began when I left Alabama to attend college in Oklahoma. I made friends with African-Americans, worked with students from diverse cultures, observed a peaceful sit-in on campus when Martin Luther King was killed.
I can’t say that I belonged to the hippie generation because by 1970 I was married and teaching school. I never participated in a protest or practiced non-violent demonstrations, but John F. Kennedy’s powerful question (“Ask not what your country . . .’) at his inauguration touched me as a 13 year old. I sat in Algebra class and watched through the window as the flag was lowered to half mast when JFK died. Like the rest of America I experienced his funeral with eyes glued to a little black and white screen. Not many years later while in college in Oklahoma Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were also shot. These common experiences marked my politics and developed a sensibility for the causes of equality, diversity, and fairness.
Many friends of mine will not agree with this last paragraph, so you have permission to skip it and go straight to my list of joys. Politics aside, whatever your persuasion, we have come a long way since 1961. Some believe that our country is bound for hell because of the liberal agenda. I can’t think of a more appropriate day for the second inauguration of Barak Obama than the day we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King.I believe God is not so interested in our politics; He is more interested in how we treat each other as brothers and sisters.
This beautiful poem written and read today at the inauguration by Richard Blanco:
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows, . . .
And this reminder by Lamar Alexander
“Find the good and praise it.” Alex Haley
Counting joys today:
#3779. a peaceful day to mark another election for president
#3780. a president who brings his unique heritage, perspective, and wisdom to lead our country
#3781. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy that led us out of those ugly days of segregation
#3782. the freedom to speak and write my opinions with no fear or trepidation
#3783. a country where most of us were immigrants somewhere in our heritage and yet we melt together to form this unique nation called America