There were some parts of growing up in the south that were less than pleasant. It wasn’t all honeysuckle and orange blossoms. During my childhood, growing up in the south also meant segregation. I don’t suppose my children’s generation will ever know how it felt to walk into the local dime store and see two water fountains – one marked “white” and the other marked “colored.” Often the “colored” fountain was inoperable.
They had restrooms that were in deplorable condition. I know. I accidentally used one before I was old enough to read. When I went to get a drink of water, I heard my mother yell, “No! Stop! That one’s not ours!” My grandchildren will never know that all the “negroes” were clearly expected to move to the back of the bus when they boarded, if they were even allowed a seat at all, and you never saw them sitting at the counter of the McCrory’s, having a cherry Coke with us white folk. The “coloreds” had their own movie theater, the Roxy, and most lived in “the quarters.”
Having dark skin in the 1950s and 1960s carried a heavy weight. I clearly remember the day, while walking down the sidewalk downtown toward the Kress store. I looked up to see a man with very dark skin approaching. I could not have been more than three years old. Mama snatched my arm, moved me to the outside of the sidewalk and placed herself between us. She leaned down and whispered into my ear, “Don’t look at him. Don’t you dare look at him.” So, I dropped my eyes to the concrete, glanced across the street at all the old men playing checkers in the park, and continued on. But, my curiosity got the best of me. I looked up, directly into eyes that spoke volumes. They were so kind and tender, almost apologetic that he had caused me this moment of discomfort. I turned my head to watch him walk away. I was supposed to be frightened by this man? Why? Suddenly, there went the arm yanking again. “I thought I told you not to look at him. Never, ever look at one again.” Many years later my mother became a successful professional. For many years her secretary was a beautiful young black woman. They often had lunch, in restaurants, together. Times changed, Mama changed. The day she died she did not possess one single fiber of racial discrimination – not one.
When I started high school, my sophomore year was the first year of mandatory segregation. They closed the “colored” high school and bussed those students to our school. It would also be during my high school years that I’d be watching the news and a black preacher was televised. Evidently, he was a big deal, for the gathering of a sea of people around the Lincoln Memorial coming to hear him speak surely denoted his importance. I heard those words,
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. And when this happens, when we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
At the time, I had no idea who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, nor what integration was about. Going against everything I had been taught or led to believe, this message rang true in my heart. On April 4, 1968, that same preacher would be murdered. It was truly a time of tumult and division in our nation.
If God says He created all men equally, if our forefathers declared as well that all men are created equal, then why were fire hoses and dogs being used to control the non-violent walks, sit-ins and demonstrations? In total irony, one of my dearest friends is black. My granddaughter sees no color of skin, but rather character of classmates. I hope we have made considerable progress to overcome the mentality and cruelty that once was allowed to consume the south.