This weekend we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a true American hero. His contributions to the Civil Rights Movement continue to benefit all Americans. Still, we have so far to go. If I just mention the cities of Baltimore and Ferguson, you know what I mean. In Dr. King’s memory, and with my own dream for a better future, I’d like to share how the Civil Rights Movement impacted my childhood.
I was in first grade when my world became desegregated. It was 1969–five years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and almost two years after Tampa’s three-day-long race riot, complete with a National Guard presence.
I’d heard plenty from grownups about “Negros” defacing and looting property, beating innocent white people, and threatening white shop owners in my city. But that was all I knew about them. I was an adult before I learned what sparked the riot–the death of nineteen-year-old Martin Chambers, a petty burglar who was shot in the back by a white police officer while up against a fence, arms raised in surrender. Tampa’s Central Park community had said that Chambers’s death was the last straw, that they were fed up with the oppressive police presence in their neighborhood.
Less than one year after the riot in Tampa, Dr. King was murdered. I don’t recall hearing of that incident at the time, but I do remember much talk about the man, that he was “looking for trouble,” and “making life harder for ‘Negroes.'” My parents grew up in Indiana. They told stories of ‘Negroes’ and white people sitting next to one another on buses, and going to the same movie theaters and coffee shops. That’s how it was in Indianapolis, they said. But when they moved to the South, they had to learn new ways. Everyone, including ‘Negroes,’ they said, wanted segregation in the South. That was just the way it was. I’m guessing that was easier to say from our side of the tracks.
But things were changing. In the summer between my kindergarten year and first grade, our city announced that children would be bussed out of their neighborhoods for school, to comply with federal desegregation laws. It seemed everywhere I went–playmates’ houses, playgrounds, shopping with my mom–all the grownups were talking about bussing.
I heard things like: Could the government really force them to go to our schools? Could they really force our children to go to their schools? How are they going to protect the children if riots break out in the schools? Adults whispered their fears and shouted their fears and spread their fears to their children. By the time I had to face it, I was just a little girl, and petrified.
I remember that first day. I stood in a corridor leading out to the street and watched the long, yellow buses drive up to the entrance of my school. I expected to see tar-black people, like the drawings in Uncle Remus storybooks. I’d seen movies and TV shows with actual black people, but the shows were in black-and-white, so I had no idea. Instead of angry, scary, black rioters, a sea of curious brown children poured out of the buses and cascaded into the building, like so many melted, assorted chocolates. They were beautiful!
I immediately fell in love with a dark chocolate boy named Richard. Richard wore a big afro, with a black pick that somehow stayed in place. It looked to me like cotton candy with a stick in it. He let me pat down his hair and he plumped it up again, using the pick. He ran his fingers through my hair, and I felt pretty when he did. We held our arms out next to one another, and laced our fingers together in amazement. This went on for many days, maybe weeks. For the rest of the school year, Richard and I were fast friends.
My school also employed a black music teacher, Miss Simpson. She remained throughout my elementary years. In a lesson on rhythm and beats, I learned to pump my little, white fist, while chanting, “Black power, black power!” I still love that. She taught us to sing the Jackson Five’s “ABC,” and Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All.” She introduced me to Motown and Soul Train. One day, while out with my family at Tampa’s Kapok Tree restaurant, I watched a glass-blower making beautiful ornaments. I asked my parents to get a glass cross for my favorite teacher. When I gave it to Miss Simpson, she cried and hugged me for a long time. I didn’t understand why. I had hoped to make her happy.
As adults, my husband and I deliberately chose an integrated neighborhood in which to raise our family. Because of the sacrifices of those that came before us, we were able to find a nice, quiet, racially-diverse neighborhood. And the great fear of what might happen if we get together? did not pass to our children. Instead, they inherited an appreciation of diversity.
I do have my own what if fears, though. I recently told my son that I feared the country is going backward, with more racial violence than only a few years ago. He reassured me by saying, “With any progress, it’s two steps forward, one step back. We’re much further along than we were, and we’re going in the right direction.” God bless him, he’s right. We just have to keep moving forward, and never lose heart.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (August 28, 1963)
Thank you, Dr. King, and Happy Birthday in Heaven. We will keep the dream alive.
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:39-40, NIV
Do you remember when your life became desegregated? Do you have a story to share? What are you doing to help keep the dream alive?