Note: A few months ago I asked my mother if she would respond to some questions about her life during the Civil Rights period. When I was a child studying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. each February, it never occurred to me that this was happening during my mother’s childhood. With the premiere of the movie “The Help” I thought it was time to get some family history on record, especially since most of her life my grandmother Altha worked as a housekeeper for white families in a Southern city. These are Deborah’s (my mother’s) thoughts.
Note: A few months ago I asked my friend Maridith to share her experiences during the time of the Freedom Riders and how they compare to now. Here is her story.
I’m convinced we don’t understand race, and perhaps we never will. We’ve seen strides forward, but today I wonder if we’ve traded one form of “segregation” for another. More on that in a moment.
I remember vividly, as a child, the mores that governed race in our small town. The balcony of the Ritz Theater, now a renovated conference hall and adjacent cafe, was restricted for blacks. Black women were the domestics who took care of white children and white homes. The town separated itself geographically and psychologically by race, and schools were not integrated until my senior year of high school. [pullquote]I wrote an editorial about our racial attitudes, in which I asserted “It’s time to stop pretending the Ku Klux Klan is a fine Christian organization.”[/pullquote]
Because we weren’t exposed to each other in school, church, or social gatherings, our understanding of each other was based on myth, fear, and deliberate distortion. Phrases entered the white vocabulary as fact: “they” want to take over; “they” want something for nothing; “they” will destroy “our” way of life. Race was defined as “the other,” and “the other” presented a threat to the comfortable status quo. But we were part of our culture, and that’s not the way we saw things then; we accepted the rhetoric. I can see more clearly 50 years later.
Several events stand out for me as seminal. In 1963, when James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, my dad was sheriff of Clay County. He was one of the hundreds of law enforcement officials called to Oxford. It was a tense, uncertain time that ultimately led to violence. I was in the 8th grade, and out of all the hundreds of kids in our public schools, I was the one and only person with a name reminiscent of Meredith. It was a time when the teacher called roll at the beginning of home room every day, and every single day became a torture for me. She started with the Abbotts and the Baileys and worked herself down the alphabet to the Walkers, and I’d start getting tense. When she came to “Maridith Walker,” the whole class would snicker and whisper under their breath. It was humiliating and demeaning–and I began to get a sense of what being an “outsider” felt like. It’s not pretty. And these were folks who had known me my whole life. How much worse for the “strangers” among us.
These were the days of the Freedom Riders, and my recollection is that I didn’t really comprehend the significance and courage of their undertaking. The phrase “outside agitators” entered the vocabulary, with the suggestion that everything would be OK if “they” would just let the accepted order remain. “They” didn’t understand our way of life. “They” didn’t understand what it was really like. I couldn’t comprehend someone caring so much about a principle that they’d enter a place where they were so unwelcome and, worse, where they faced jail, or–as the case would tragically prove–death.
Years later, when I was a senior in high school, our class enrolled the first two blacks in the history of West Point public schools. It was uneventful, and Minnie Matthews and Sylvester Harris became visible but certainly not lightning rods of controversy or dissension. I was editor of our high school paper, which that year was inserted into the Daily Times Leader as a tabloid. I was busy reading Ayn Rand and thinking that the world could be changed with a single, strong voice. So I wrote an editorial about our racial attitudes, in which I asserted “It’s time to stop pretending the Ku Klux Klan is a fine Christian organization.”
[pullquote] “It was commonly asserted that I was nothing but a ‘communist’ anyway.”[/pullquote]
And then, it hit the fan. The editorial generated a storm of controversy and chatter among the community and my own classmates, who would walk on the opposite side of the hallway when I approached. Perhaps exacerbated by it and other editorials I had written, I was accused of trying to subvert the accreditation process for the school system. I was called out of class and chastised by the principal. My mother threatened to sue the school board.
Not one of my fondest memories of my hometown, and I suspect some folks still hold those long-ago opinions of me even today. When I went to Millsaps College as a freshman, it was commonly asserted that I was nothing but a “communist” anyway. I’d write those editorials again today, but I still vividly remember the hurt, the tension, and the feeling of being completely shunned. Suddenly, I was the “outsider.”
We have long since passed the days when one black student could disrupt a university or a state by his mere presence. Today, our university is 20 percent African-American. I’m proud that we’ve had three African-American student body presidents and that leadership and academic opportunities exist regardless of race.
But here’s what I observe, both in my own community and our campus: we tend to self-segregate. We gravitate to those most like us, and while the doors are open, I still see a psychological and often economic divide. Someone has to continue to have the courage to bridge what separates all of us. We need the Freedom Rider spirit alive today–that spirit that reaches across the barriers to the human being.
Be sure to visit Maridith at her blog, In Walking Distance.