When I was a child segregation still had a stranglehold on the south. I recall being confused by the reality of the times. It made little sense to me that there were two sets of water fountains and bathrooms for whites and blacks. I often rode the city bus to downtown and never understood why there was a line of demarcation that kept me apart from the Black children. I actually thought it would be way more fun to ride in the back of the bus. I did not realize that the Black people sitting there had no other choice. It never really occurred to me that I never saw a Black student at my school. It was not until a summer visit to my grandparents’ farm in Arkansas that I became aware of a brewing struggle in the civil rights movement that would eventually become a passionate cause for me.
Whenever we visited my grandparents we always ended up sitting on their screened in front porch during the hottest part of the day. There the adults would discuss topics that did not always make sense to me, but one day in a summer of sixty three years ago they spoke of pending efforts to integrate Arkansas schools. The topic caught my attention and made me feel as though adults were silly to worry so much about kids getting together to learn regardless of the color of their skin. I did not fully understand the concerns that they discussed at that time. It was only when I became a teenager in the nineteen sixties that I learned how long the struggle for civil rights had taken for the Black citizens of our country. It was then that I l read about the horrific treatment of this school aged kids who had been courageous pioneers in the integration of schools. It was only then that my own school saw its first students of color.
I was a quirky little girl who seemed to become an old soul upon the death of my father. Before he died I had floated through life like an unconcerned and happy butterfly. Everything became dramatically serious for me when he was gone. I suppose that my passion for equality and justice began on the summer day when all of my questions surrounding segregation coalesced into the simple thought that there was no reason for any of us to be forbidden to enjoy the same rights. My simplistic thinking was idealistically pure in reasoning that we are all the same and therefore discussions about living together should have been simple rather than filled with the rancor that accompanied the Civil Rights movement. I viewed the hardships of Black citizens from afar, in a retreat of comfort while they were on the front lines.
In many ways the idealism of my immaturity followed me after the passage of the Civil Rights bill in the nineteen sixties. I naively saw the battle for justice as being won and over. It did not occur to me that the same prejudices that created a furor over six year old Ruby Bridges attending an all white elementary school were still very much alive in the hearts of some of my fellow Americans. I was wrong to assume that racism would magically go away simply because a law declared the rights for all people in our country. I suppose I just was not paying enough attention, but my sleep walking would not last.
By the final decade of the twentieth century I was teaching in one of the most diverse schools in the city of Houston. I saw the blending of many colors and cultures, but also disturbingly felt the rumblings of prejudice that smacked of the days of my childhood. Some of my Black colleagues assured me that their struggles were far from over and that was brought home to me when a relative of one of them was brutally murdered in a little town not far from Houston. The homicide smacked of the lynchings of old and I felt ashamed that I had not seen such things still happening with regularity.
The election of President Barack Obama seemed to herald a new day of brotherhood among Americans, but then the bigoted commentary and cartoons about him and his family oozed into the public forum. I did not want to believe that the underbelly of racism was still alive. I fought against such thoughts even as the evidence demonstrated that I was wrong. My optimism faltered as the worst was yet to come.
As we celebrate Black History month echoes of the horrific racism of my childhood are becoming louder and more widely accepted. Tucker Carlson openly hawks a racist screed about Barack and Michelle Obama without the least fear of losing his lucrative job as a purveyor of propaganda. I hear his words in horror and wonder if we got to this point because too many people like me were lulled into thinking that the civil rights work was done. We lost our passion and went about our lives while Black citizens were still feeling the sting of racism. We thought that warnings from our Black friends were hyperbolic. We chose to insulate ourselves into thinking that problems no longer existed. After all, we saw that Blacks were working alongside us, living in our neighborhoods, sitting next to us on busses, becoming successful, even winning elections to become President of the United States. How could we imagine that anything was wrong with the status quo?
As we take time to celebrate our nation’s strides forward during Black History month we would also do well to accept that there is still work to be done. The signs and realities tell us that our nation and many of its people have not yet admitted that the journey for justice still looms before us. It was only sixty three years ago when little Ruby Bridges so bravely represented the hopes and dreams of equality shared by all oppressed people. Don’t fall asleep. Read about the struggles then and now. Keep the passion for justice burning. Speak out when wrong is done and listen to those who have experienced and may still be experiencing prejudice. Their stories are as important now as they were not so long ago.
One thought on “Not So Long Ago”
Very well done~! Except that you must understand that it did not, and does not, stop at the Mason Dixon Line. Bigotry is a universal problem all over the world, whether it is in the name of color, religion, or nationality and all should be seen. Thanks, I lived it too and was also a percipient, in my ignorance, and blindness, of human nature.