Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Your Civil Rights Stories
Standing in front of the 32nd Precinct at age 4 was not my idea of having a good time. That was probably the worst time in my life. It was 1964, and my mother and her sister took part in a march against the 32nd Precinct on West 135th St. between 7th and 8th avenues [in New York City]. You see, although many writers, such as James Baldwin, talked about the police brutality of my uncle Frank Stafford, the story still has not settled in my bones. My Uncle Frank was a pantyhose salesman who had just left a client. He had observed the police beating up on a young boy who was allegedly accused of stealing fruit. My uncle asked the police, "What did the young boy do?" and the police beat my uncle so bad that his eyeball was smashed. They then left him in the precinct for hours before he was sent to a hospital. The doctors were unable to save his eye, so he spent the rest of his days wearing a patch. I never forgot how the women felt and how they led a march in front of the 32nd Precinct. I could hear them protest, "Police brutality! Police brutality!" I remember holding a sign, pushing my brother in his stroller, and the Black Panthers and other civil rights activists screaming. Now, in 2013, we still hear stories of police brutality, and there are hundreds of victims all across America who are hoping that one day the community and the police will one day be able to communicate without tensions. Only time will tell.
La Grande, Ore.
In 1966, I was a white youth growing up in Eastern Oregon. In our town, there were only a few black families and they were, for the most part, integrated and well thought of, at a distance, for most of us. In the fall of that year, I was in the Army at Fort Polk, La., and had just finished Republic of Vietnam Advanced Individual Training, Infantry. While walking on the sidewalk one afternoon, I saw a sheriff's 4-WD rig hit a little black boy in a small intersection. There was no traffic light. The boy, about 10, was laying on his right side in the street, moaning and crying, holding his left leg bent, pants torn and bleeding moderately. His young black friend was standing away a little with the small crowd that gathered. Someone in the crowd said, "Man, that's too bad." And the deputy sheriff said, "Yeah, I tried to get both of them, but the other one was too fast for me." In a couple of minutes, two black men from the crowd helped the boy up and half-carried him away. I did and said nothing, partially from disbelief at the inequity of it, and partially in fear of getting in trouble. But I did empathize with the little boy and was ashamed at what happened, and could only imagine how much that deputy's words hurt that little kid. I have had remorse for the rest of my life that I didn't do something or say something. I have wondered about that little boy and how he turned out, and what kind of life he had as he grew up. Man, I wish I'd said and done something to help him.
A few months later, I was an officer candidate at Fort Benning, Ga., and a half dozen or so of us went into neighboring Columbus, Ga., to the taverns and nightclubs. One of us was black. So we went into this one bar, and the bartender said we couldn't come in with the black guy. I immediately asked why, and the bartender explained that the owner had a rule that they would serve no blacks. I said, "If he's good enough to serve in the Army and become an Army officer, then he's good enough to drink in this (expletive deleted) bar!" The bartender told us to get out or he would call the police. I told him that the police would take our side. Then the club owner came over and told us that it was just the way it was, and that he'd been a soldier and got a Purple Heart. I told him that any fool in combat could raise his butt and get it shot, a Purple Heart didn't mean much to us. He became irate and told us to get the hell out immediately. So we left and went to the next bar up the street. The bar owner heard us talking loudly about what had just happened and came over to me and said, "Man, you sure are lucky. That guy shot and killed a man last week for arguing with him." In the Army in those days, we quickly found that "in the fox hole, we all bleed red." We found that the color of our skin didn't matter; we were all in the Republic of Vietnam mess together, and we were all going to combat together.
When my mom was about 7, my grandmother set up a Kool-Aid/lemonade stand for her three daughters to run—not to make money but because my grandma felt bad that the black people had to walk so far. So thus began the Kool-Aid stand. Water was free, and Kool-Aid and lemonade were 2 cents. The police chastised my grandparents for allowing contact of three little white girls (ages 7, 6 and 5) with black people. So my grandparents told the police off and dared them to arrest their daughters, which they didn't. The police would even buy Kool-Aid from them as time went on. This went on for many years, and never once did any harm come to them. As a matter of fact, friendships with black people were made. My mother and aunts learned a lot unknowingly from that experience. First, to be loving and kind to everyone. Second, it never occurred to them to be prejudiced. That's the love and legacy my grandparents passed down to us. Lewis, Marie, Etta, Marie and Louise Hiatt made a difference that's lasted for generations.
My father (V.T. Lee) felt very strongly about fighting for civil rights. My father taught me much about discrimination, hatred and the struggle to rise above it. He marched with many people for civil rights, at times, coming home bloody. I learned of the fire hoses being turned on marchers from my father. He would stand guard at the lunch counters to warn and assist. He wrote articles, traveled to marches and protests. Most important to me was that he taught me! You see, my father was a white man, born in 1927. I am so proud to have had him as my father, as I have never met another white man who fought so hard for others to vote, ride busses (and sit where they wanted), drink from a fountain, go to a public beach or movie theater. Not only did my father fight for these rights, he did it while living in the South. I was born and raised in Tampa, Fla. He was a very hated man by many. I witnessed much violence due to his beliefs.
What I remember most about the civil rights struggle was leaving my neighborhood in Newark, N.J., and going to the bus terminal in Irvington, N.J., to sit on a bench and wait for someone to come in and hire me to clean their house for the day.
I was always taken by car to the job site and returned to the bus station to make my way home. I missed my bus and decided to go into the Woolworth's at the corner to have a drink before the next bus arrived. I sat at the counter only to see the waitresses work their way down to me and go back to take care of the white patrons. Each waitress did this for some time as I moved from one area of the counter to the other. Finally, the janitor (a black man) told me that they would not serve me at the counter. This was 1963 in New Jersey. I was saddened and shocked to find out I couldn't sit and eat in a public facility with you. However, I could clean your house and take care of your children. I had been raised in mixed but poor neighborhoods all my 18 years, and had never felt so low and hurt. I came home and failed to share the story with my family for many years simply because racism had not been talked about in my household. However, I learned later that an older sister of mine (who was grown) had been one of the first participants at a sit in at Woolworth's in North Carolina.
Growing up as a little boy in my native city of Gary, Ind., I would often sit at my grandmother's knee and help her and my grandfather pick peas and clean fish. Sitting with my elders doing chores was a Saturday ritual where everybody would tell jokes, and talk about politics and family issues. One Saturday afternoon, a news flash came over the radio about the 10th anniversary of the freedom march in Washington D.C., and just like that, everybody got real serious.
I asked my grandparents to explain the freedom march and why everyone's attitude suddenly changed. My grandmother was the first one to speak up. She said, "Well, baby, the freedom march was a march that was organized by Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. and other organizations so that black people could receive equal treatment." She stated that, "Growing up in the South back in those days was a different time; black people were treated with scorn and contempt."
That's when I asked my grandmother what was her life like growing up in the South and whether she participated in the civil rights movement. My grandmother, Mrs. Elouise Taylor, told me about her role in the civil rights movement. She was born in Union Town, Ala., and was raised in the Jim Crow era. My grandmother was denied a quality education and the basic rights of a human being. Her everyday lifestyle and the lifestyle of other African Americans were filled with fear and a sense of being considered a second class citizen. She was determined at an early age to be treated with dignity and respect by her white neighbors, but because of current laws and sharecropping she was forced to drop out of school. My grandmother moved to Gary, Ind., to avoid the drama in the South, only to find out that racism was being practiced in the Northern states as well. She was determined to be a fighter in the second wind of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement had been fought in the United States since slavery was abolished, but the movement didn't get into full swing until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white patron. That act alone was the springboard that got national attention, not all the lynching, the fire bombings or the outright disrespect of an entire race of people. My grandmother was ready for action. She went back to her native Alabama and joined the Freedom Riders. One of the first marches she participated in was the civil rights march of Washington D. C., where Dr. King delivered one of history's most famous speeches, the "I Have a Dream" speech.
My grandmother got silent for a moment, and I could see the tears start to well up in her eyes. Then my mother told me that my grandmother would leave my mom and her siblings with my grandfather and ride down south with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rest of the Freedom Riders to rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, marches, voter registration drives and funerals. My mother said that she and her siblings would watch the events on TV and sometimes they would be scared and cry. They would see the dogs biting the marchers and the police beating on people. Life for my family was very hectic during those times because people were getting killed. My mother said she didn't know when or if my grandmother would lose her life for the struggle. My mother told me that whenever my grandmother would come home, she would tell them everything that happened and what the news wouldn't or didn't show.
My grandmother said the march that she was most proud of was the Selma to Montgomery march. She stated that, "The march from Selma to Montgomery was like taking a breath of fresh air." My grandmother would cry with pride every time she would see news clips of the march. She said that march was the most important march in world history since the Exodus from Egypt by our Hebrew ancestors. I asked her why that march was more important than the civil rights march on Washington, D.C.
She looked at me and said with a sigh, "Well, baby, the March on Washington was a peaceful march, whereas the Selma march was full of hardships. Many people black and white were beaten by the Klan and the police. Some people even lost their lives." She stated, "The first march we tried was on a Sunday, and when we got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge there was a wall of state troopers waiting for us on the other side. The police brutality was so bad that the news dubbed that day as "Bloody Sunday." She said, "I had never been so scared in my life; the police sicced the dogs on us and beat us senseless."
My grandmother looked to the sky and said, "Over 700 people were arrested for trying to participate in a nonviolent march. The only good thing that came out of 'Bloody Sunday' was that the whole world got to see how the Alabama state troopers treated the protesters. That act of violence shifted the way people looked at the civil right movement."
She stated, "It took us three attempts to finally march from Selma to Montgomery. We got a judge to give us the right to march. We could only march during the day, we could only have 300 marchers on the highway at any giving time and by the third attempt to march, there were 25,000 people in attendance." I could tell that even though she was proud of what the marches achieved, she was still saddened at how they were treated, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and she heard it when Dr. King delivered the speech "How Long, Not Long."
She said, "Because of the way they treated us, President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Governor George Wallace in Washington to talk to him about the civil rights situation in his state. They couldn't come to an agreement so President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act."
I would watch the news clips and try to see if I could spot my grandmother. Watching the news clips was very intense; I often wondered how people could treat each other like that. Because of Dr. King, the Washington D.C., and Selma marches, and what they represented, I participated in the Million Man march years later. I could never fully understand how my grandmother felt when she marched on Washington D.C,. and Selma, but I understand her quest for freedom and equality. These are the things I leaned sitting at my grandmother's knee.
I grew up in a small Oklahoma community in which segregated, black neighborhood pockets existed in several parts of town. My mother worked for the McAlesters, for whom the town was named. I remember my mom took me with her to work, and I played outside on the porch with Becky, the youngest granddaughter and member of the McAlester clan. The McAlesters loved my mother and enjoyed her superb culinary talents. My mother was an excellent cook and nutritionist as well. One time Becky's friend saw me with Becky on their circular porch, playing. She came up to Becky and curiously inquired who the "colored girl" was and why Becky was playing with me. Becky shared who I was and before she could finished the introduction, her friend commented that she had heard that colored people had "tails" like monkeys and asked if Becky had seen my tail. I could tell that Becky was embarrassed as the friend turned to me and asked me directly, "Do you have a tail?" It did me so well to flip up my dress and pat my butt toward her as I happily asked, "See, do you see a tail?" She left the playing area, upset that I had insulted her and that Becky had witnessed it and not disciplined me. I smiled the rest of the day, thinking how clever it was to show her my butt at her request. This was my first effort to ensure civil rights for me.
I am a white woman, raised to adolescence in England in a multicultural environment, by southern American parents with no hint of racial prejudice in them. I was unprepared for the harshness of the South when I returned in 1960. Even though I left the Catholic Church at age 18, I will never forget a lesson taught me by Father Armand Gregoire at Our Lady of Grace in Avon Park, Fla., when I was a teenager in 1964. On an early Sunday morning, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the statue of Mary at the front of the church because we were the only integrated house of worship in the county. Parishioners showed up early to the remove the rubble of the still-smoldering cross. Father Gregoire came running from the sanctuary waving his arms and yelling "Stop!' He said the act was an act of hate and that if the rubble was removed the act of hate would be forgotten. He said we must leave it for the townspeople to view every time they drive by, because leaving it was an act of forgiveness that would eventually be seen as an act of love. The remnants of that burned cross lay there for many years to come, but no other act of hate was ever committed again the church by the Klan.
Joyce Russell Terrell
In 1961, I integrated Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge located in Prince William County, Virginia. My father, Rev. James P. Russell, was the president of the NAACP. Roy Wilkins selected attorney Sterling Tucker to represent me at a hearing in Richmond because I had been denied admittance to the all-white high school. I was 13 and had seen the Little Rock film clips over and over, and was afraid for my life. This was a county where the KKK reigned supreme and where the first battle of the Civil War was fought in Manassas. I was denied admittance to the school and I was relieved. Weeks later, while looking at the news, the reporter made the announcement that the ruling was overturned and that I would be integrating the previously all-white school. That night the Klan shot up our house. Little did they know that Daddy had a small arsenal in his closet. He ran around the house and returned fire. Shot for shot! By morning Bobby Kennedy sent the federal marshals to advise me to get out of the area until school started. My dad drove me to our family homestead in North Carolina. He brought copies of the Washington Post, which included articles of the integration, and put them in the local all-white stores. I think to prove a point that he was a man and not a boy. Two nights later, a huge cross was burned across the road. That moment was the end of my childhood. On the first day of school, my mother drove and police cars were in front of me and behind me. When I arrived at the school the whole student body was standing outside and the media had been told to leave and there went my Ruby Bridges picture for historical purposes. I reluctantly walked to the front door as the students moved back so I could get through. At the main entrance Principal Herbert Saunders said, “Welcome to Gar-Field High School.” I walked through those doors and a hell began that no child should experience. I stepped out of that car a colored girl and arrived inside the building a young black woman. My sister Deborah and brother Cameron integrated Occoquan Elementary School and brother Jimmy Russell integrated Fred Lynn Middle School. My father, James P. Russell, singlehandedly with his children desegregated the school system in Woodbridge in spite of threats, numerous hate calls and the KKK. I hated the horrid experience of integrating alone and have carried this with me all of my life. At this time, I feel that I did my part so that we now have an African American man as president of these United States of America. Yes, I integrated a high school alone and felt that if I could do that, I could do anything. There are thousands of Civil Rights stories and mine is one of them. God bless you.
I lived less than five miles from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. My birthplace will forever be known as the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed. For a long time, I was ashamed of the place I had called home. I remember the evening as if it was yesterday. It had been raining that day and it was cloudy and dreary outside. When they announced Dr. King's death, everyone on my street came outside and were wailing and crying and looking up toward heaven asking, "Why?" As a young girl, I will always remember that night in Memphis. I learned at a very early age that you can be killed even if you were doing good deeds. I learned at a young age that the color of my skin would impact my life. I grew up in a system of social deference — a system of segregation. All legitimatized through community approval, and all triggered by provincialism, poverty, caste gains and solidarity. Those times taught me to be proud of my heritage and who I was. I understand the struggle and the fight for civil rights, dignity and pride. Those experiences motivated me to get an education and work hard and I passed that legacy down to my daughters.
I was a member of the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. On a hazy afternoon in the fall of l979, many folks in the city of Greensboro, N.C., were at a football game as two friendly rivals played out a game on the field of NC A&T State University's stadium. A hail of shots were heard in the community of a housing project, but the fans didn't hear them. It was when they left the game and turned on their auto radios, or waited until they were home and turned on their TVs, that they heard the news. The Ku Klux Klan had invaded a housing project where some small groups were staging a juvenile-type "Death to the Klan" rally and engaged in a shoot-out with a barely armed group of Duke University students and the Socialist Party workers. When the smoke settled, five of the students and socialist workers were dead. Rev. William Finlator, then chair of the N.C. State Advisory Council, initiated a hearing through the commission. For days, the committee sat in the Guilford Courthouse with helicopters buzzing overhead; State Bureau of Investigation, FBI and local police observing movements; and members of the Neo Nazi Party, in brown shirts, goose-stepping and making a mockery out of the hearing. Eventually, the perpetrators were tried in court and found not guilty. Nine years passed and lawsuits, charges and countercharges were filed. The local police were said to not have responded to the KKK threat until it was too late. When the local NAACP, families of the deceased youth and workers, the Socialist Workers Party, religious leaders and other local citizens decided to "reaffirm their opposition to the intimidation and terror tactics of the Klan in rural communities in NC," they decided to stage a march for justice and to evidence their commitment to work for peace and justice. With five deaths having occurred the last time the Klan was challenged, some feared another bloody confrontation. By then I, a professor and administrator at N.C. A&T, had become state chair of the N.C. State Advisory Council, replacing Finlator. I chaired the march. The Greensboro police assured us that they would do all they could, and I took the front line in the march. Scores of buildings along the march route had windows that could accommodate snipers if they so chose and aimed guns on the marchers, especially the front line. Some 4,000 people came out to support the Peace and Justice Rally. I look back with deep thanksgiving that no incidents occurred, realizing the march could have been the day when the shoot-out was repeated and I was on the front line and most likely to have fallen if there had been firing.
In the ninth grade, the guidance counselor called all of the black students to gather in the auditorium. We were all advised to select the trade high school as our high school choice instead of the college prep high school, the business and secretarial science high school, or the math and science high school. No regard was given to our individual academic performance or aptitudes. We, the black students, had been bused into this school for grades 7-9. This was in Massachusetts in 1969. No one on the staff was black, only the students.
Because of good performance on aptitude tests, I was one of several black students who were in the top tracks for academics. But having to get to the bus stop an hour earlier than the white kids and standing on the street corner during rain, snow or sunshine was no fun. Was it worth it? Well, there was more exposure to the white world and culture; I do not recall any name-calling from the white kids or discriminatory behavior on the part of the teachers, only the guidance counselor, who only saw a future of trade vocational work for the collective.
My father was the first African American person to register and vote in Haywood County, Tenn., since Reconstruction. There were three attempts on his life by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. During one of the assassination attempts, he was seriously injured. His injury was the result of a Klan member attempting to run him off the road. My father's vehicle was struck from behind, and he was thrown from the vehicle and left for dead in a cotton field. The ambulance driver discovered he was not dead during the transport and brought him to our home and dumped him on the front porch. The local hospital refused treatment and my father had to be taken by my mother to Jackson, which was 25 miles from where we lived.
During another assassination attempt a bomb was placed under our home, which blew three rooms away. My parents received minor injuries, as well as one of my brothers. During the third assassination attempt, the Klan discovered my father often slept overnight at his place of business to prevent damage to his property. My father on occasion would sleep in the garage behind his place of business, rather than on the premises. He would dress a cot on the premises of his business with pillows and blankets to give the impression he was sleeping there overnight. On one occasion my mother received a late night phone call informing her that her "nigger husband" had been killed and she needed to come and get the body. When I arrived at my father's place of business with my mother and two of my brothers, we approached a bullet-riddled cot, and assumed my father was dead. When one of my brothers removed the blanket, we broke down in tears. My father appeared several minutes later
During the course of my father’s involvement in the civil rights movement during the ’60s, I witnessed Klansmen burning crosses in our yard on several occasions. We received death threats, and lived in constant fear of the Klan appearing during the middle of the night and taking my father to an isolated area and lynching him. The courage, perseverance and wisdom that my father demonstrated were unbelievable. I never saw anxiety or fear in his demeanor.
On one occasion the Rev. Martin Luther King appeared at our home for a meeting. As a 10-year-old child I was unaware of the significance of his presence, and what he would mean to the future of the civil rights movement in this country.
Even though my father dropped out of school in the third grade. He became a member of the county board of education, became local president of the NAACP chapter, and ran unsuccessfully for sheriff. My father inspired me to stand up for injustice and become a servant of the people. As a clinical social worker I have used the ideals and philosophy of my father's commitment to civil rights to address the needs of individual in our society that are less fortunate.
Jet magazine did an article on my father in the spring of 1966, to highlight his involvement in the civil rights movement in West Tennessee.
Katherine van Wormer
Cedar Falls, Iowa
The year was 1963 when a prominent member of Martin Luther King's Christian Southern Leadership Conference spoke at the Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill to us young people. "Why aren't you white people out there marching?" he asked. My sister and I hadn't even thought of joining in but then realized we would be welcome and could take a stand. I was a student at UNC. From then on it was singing, rallies, sit-ins and lie-ins. A rough class of whites called us "nigger lovers," but liberal whites stood in crowds each Saturday and cheered us on. Local businesses signed petitions for total integration of the town. We picketed a segregated bar, and it went out of business. The police made their arrests but protected us from violence. I have never felt so empowered. TV cameras were everywhere. The songs stay with me today: "We shall not be moved" "Which side are you on, boy."
When I was in the second grade growing up in western New York the gym teacher used to call me "spaghetti arms" and "grease ball." I was 7 years old and had no idea what he was talking about. I went home and asked my dad about it, and he was silent for a minute before telling me that it didn't mean anything and to just forget it. As the years went by, I got used to being called vulgar names because I had an Italian surname. I learned about the persecution that my dad and granddad had to deal with when they were growing up and when they were in the armed forces in World War I and World War II. I learned to laugh off people's ignorance, but it's a shame how cruel people can be.
No child should experience racism, and have such ugly and painful memories the rest of their life, just because of the color of their skin. As I reflect, I have a few memories of a lifetime of racism in America, but I shall share this one today. It was a spring Saturday morning and I was with my mother on the bus going downtown. The bus was crowded with standing room only. I was holding onto a bar, facing an old white man with a cane. Precipitously, the driver slammed the brakes, forcing me as well as others to lose our balance. In the attempt to keep from falling, I accidentally stepped on the old man's foot. He retaliated by hurting me — he stamped on my foot as hard as he could. I looked into his piercing eyes; cold, sky-blue eyes that were filled with rooted hate for me and all I represented. Without blinking, he looked into the eyes of a small black child, and not only did he see fear, but he saw my questioning, "Why?" This was my first conscious experience with overt and covert racism. I was 6 years of age. I do not struggle to recall his face.
That experience taught me as a young child that there truly is a difference in our society with skin color, and my skin is not the chosen one. However, my mother taught my brother and me to treat everyone on an individual basis, no matter what the color of their skin, their religion, faith or choice. That old man with those piercing, sky-blue eyes did not speak for everyone of European descent, and I continue to live my mother's humanistic philosophy: individual basis only. This fall is my 37th year teaching in the public schools, I have always taught each class my mother's philosophy, treat everyone on an individual basis only. Anything else is ignorant.
My dad worked for 44 years at a local college as a carpenter. One day he and the foremen, who was white, went to the cellar of this very large building to retrieve some supplies. As they were rounding the corner, they came upon a huge hangman's noose with support beams lying on the floor. My dad asked the foremen what was that. He said, "You know what it is." The next day when he went back, it was gone. My dad never spoke of this to anyone, because he was very scared that he would be fired. It was only after he became very sick that was he able to tell me some of his experiences.
In 1956, before Title IV was passed in 1972, my twin sister Diane Strain McClelland and I were freshmen in high school when it was announced the school was forming a boys' tennis team. When we asked the administration if we could have a girls' tennis team, they told us "No, since we have intramurals." We told them, "No, we want to have an interscholastic team like the boys." So the administration thought about it, then came back to us and said, "If you can get 50 girls to turn out for the team, then it could justify to them a need for this team." We then took on this project with lots of energy by doing PA announcements and posters around the school that resulted in 60 girls turning out. With the turnout exceeding their requirement, they decided to allow the tryouts for two days. Diane and I did make the six-member team. After our team was formed, the athletic director had to reach out to other schools in the area to form girls teams so we would have teams to compete against. Even though the boys had nine interscholastic sports and us girls only had one, our team was the first to bring a state championship to the school. I was also fortunate to become the first varsity four-year letterwoman. When I got to college in 1961 and tried to start a girls' tennis team then, the administration resisted so it wasn't formed until later years. This experience was a turning point for both of us so we have spent most of our lives working to empower the downtrodden and in most recent years by helping to certify women-owned businesses in six states through a national certification program called WBENC. This certification is needed since there are a number of male-owned businesses that try to look like they are women-owned to gain the advantages in the marketplace. Our fight for equal rights continues and we try to enlighten the younger women to not take their freedom for granted and to get involved. We seek to make a difference every day.
One summer, when I was about 14 years old, my friend's family invited me to go to Florida with them on vacation. This would have been about 1967. On the drive down from Pennsylvania, we stopped at a small gas station in a rural area of Georgia. The gas station was pretty beat-up and worn down. On the porch, were three or four African American boys between the ages of 8 and 10 quietly sitting on a bench. My friend and I went in and bought a couple of Cokes. In those days, Coke came in a glass bottle and a deposit was required for the bottle. The idea being when you returned the bottle you got your deposit back. The soda pop company then sanitized and reused the bottles. We paid for our Cokes and noticed the owner of the gas station, who was white, didn't charge us a deposit. We asked him about the deposit. His response is something that has stayed with me for 45 years as vividly as if it had just happened. In the gruffest and meanest voice he said, "Those n... outside will pay it. They're lazy good for nothings and don't do nothing but collect welfare." We hurriedly left. Walking past the boys still sitting on the bench I thought, "This is unfair; why should they pay for us? And they're just boys." I also thought that we should have just left the money for the deposit on the counter and left, but he frightened us. I had never experienced blatant and just mean bigotry before. It shook me to my core. Once in the car, my friend and I repeated what happened to her parents. They explained discrimination and racial hatred to us. And in fact, the uncle's wife we were going to visit was routinely harassed in her community because she was German. She was called a Nazi and other nasty names; their property was spray-painted even though World War II had been over for two decades. While we continued our drive to Florida, that old man and his hatred for those little boys kept popping up in my head. I didn't get it. They were just little boys. Over the years when I think of that time, I'd wonder about the lives of those little boys. What didn't we see, if just asking what the deposit was on a bottle caused such a stir? I still do not get racial hatred.
My father was the most fascinating storyteller/historian I knew when I was a teenager in the 1960's in rural southeastern Ohio. Frequently, while watching the nightly national news about the civil rights movement and all that was taking place in the South (i.e. sit-ins, marches, voter registration, etc.), he would tell me and my siblings about his life experiences as a young boy growing up in Hazlehurst, Miss., during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s and as a man serving in the U.S. Navy during the 1940s and 1950s. I remember one particular time I asked him about how he got a somewhat small, but deep scar on the right side of his forehead. His answer was a simple, matter-of-fact one. He said a white man threw a rock at him. When I asked my father why, he said, "Because I was black." I don't know why his statement stuck with me through the years. I guess I thought he would tell me some dramatic background story to indicate why he had received such an obvious, permanent wound — but there wasn't any. The rock was thrown simply because he was black. The individual throwing the rock was a fully grown adult white man. My father was just a young black child of about age 10 that happened to be in his line of sight, and he took advantage of the opportunity to call him a derogatory name and show his disgust for this black child by throwing a rock. Another history lesson from my father was when he told me who could actually go to school. He said that to go to school in Mississippi during his childhood, that a black person had to be "light enough to show a blue vein", and then he proceeded to turn his arm over and showed me his wrist area. He held the palm of his hand forward, yet tight and said, "see this blue vein of mine — because you can see it, that means I was permitted to go to school" According to my dad, anyone not light enough to show a blue vein could only work in the fields. Also, his mother was a schoolteacher. At that time, if a black person had completed the eighth grade, they could teach. I was fascinated by this whole story.
My grandfather, James M. Howard Sr., left me with the clear understanding that everyone can contribute considerably, if they just stand up for what is right. I searched many years trying to understand what Dr. King did to cause such an uproar in this country when he was killed. I was about 5 when I saw my mother shed a tear. I wanted to do something that would be as great as Dr. King's work so that people would miss me after I passed as well. After following and studying many leaders that contributed much to the many marches and boycotts during the civil rights era, I still felt empty. Little did I know that within my own family was a great courageous man by the name of James M. Howard and he happened to be my grandfather. He did things for the citizens of Kankakee, Ill., well before all of the national organizing took place in the ’60s. He was one man in one small town that stood up for young blacks to formally learn to swim when whites did not want them in the high school pool. One man that built his own soda fountain/burger place, so that black children could buy their food from the front of his restaurant (The Wagon Wheel) and drink root beer from glass mugs and not paper cones like the white children. One man whose car was riddled with bullets because he refused to allow the black community to be a red-light district, where young women could not freely walk the streets without being harassed by white men looking for prostitutes. When I asked him what made him do these things, he stated simply, “When individuals came to me with problems, I felt I could help. I could stand up for what was right.” Thank you for the opportunity to share. God bless us all.
Green Bay, Wis.
My story may not be huge to anyone but me but here goes: My father was a racist bigot pig. When I was little I remember watching on the news about black American being washed away by fire hoses because they were marching for rights. My father acted like he was watching a huge comedy show and he never stopped making fun of black Americans. I always said to myself I will never be like him. I’m proud to say that soon I will be 64 years old and when I hear people talking that way I always say my piece. Some times it comes back on me but I am not my father’s daughter. Just my little part in the ongoing effort for rights for all.
Santos Sandy Ruiz
Texas City, Texas
My mom and dad would take us to town on Saturdays. I vividly recall seeing the water fountains at the Woolworth. One of the fountains was labeled "colored." I always chose the colored fountain because I expected the water to be colored and to probably taste like Kool-Aid. I would always be disappointed that the water was always just water. My mom never told me the reason. I didn't find out why they were labeled colored until I grew up and saw the demonstrations on TV. I watched live the people being hosed down on the news. I also watched Dr. King give his famous speech.
My father was stationed in England from 1953 to 1956. Racial bias was blatant, in food labeling, radio programs, printed advertising, so I was aware that racial hatred existed before my father was posted to Hunter AFB, Savannah, Ga. I had been told by my parents that America was the best place in the world. I was dumbfounded by the signs for "COLORED" pointing to the outhouse behind the white building. The outhouse was in such poor shape I would have been afraid of the damn thing collapsing on me. I attended the Episcopal church. During the services there were two families with children that did not squirm, wiggle and make noise, My sister and I, because our parents would smack us, and a black family with three kids, the youngest maybe 4-5 years old. My father drove past this family and stopped and offered them a ride, I will never forget the words the black gentleman said. "Oh thank you, good sir, but I can’t put your life in danger; just talking to you can get me beaten and my family, but I thank you for the offer.”
I have many stories concerning civil rights to share, but I believe the ones that have impacted my family the most is the one of my paternal grandfather, Julius Davis from Birmingham, Ala. I have never lived in Birmingham, but was born there. My father moved his small family (my mama and I) from Birmingham when I was 2. He wanted a better life for his children than the one offered in Alabama in 1951. My mom's family spoke of my grandfather’s incident with Bull Conner in the ’40s often. That "meeting" was the reason I never met my grandfather. He was killed after that passing meeting with Conner and his officers. According to the family stories my grandfather did have mental issues and had been in the State Hospital for the Colored Insane (I kid you not). When he crossed paths with Bull Conner (who hadn't been involved in the incident where he stood in the path of school integration yet), it was due to him having a "nervous breakdown" (as they called it then), and someone in the neighborhood (my mom living in what was known as Homewood then) calling the police to take him to get him to go to the hospital. During the verbal exchange my grandfather apparently had heated words with Bull (perfect name for him), after which he was grabbed, beat up and thrown into a police car. My mother (4 at the time) never saw her father alive again. Four months later he was returned for burial and they were told he had killed himself after being taken to the mental hospital. One of my aunts noted that even as a child she noticed all the bruises and lumps on and around his head and neck, and realized he'd been killed (they weren't sure if it was by the police or maybe at the hospital but he'd definitely not just hung himself).
As a teen in the ’60s I kept coming across that name Bull Connor and realized a personal hatred for him that I had to resolve. Currently, I am pursuing my family’s genealogy and am curious to find any surviving records about what actually happened to my grandfather. I always thank my father for moving us to Ohio where I didn't have to worry so much about surviving my childhood. Although there were racial issues there, they were more subtle.
Although I shared my serious civil rights story I'd like to share one on a lighter note. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, (my father moved us from Birmingham when I was 2, although we still had a large family in the South). I went to a segregated school in Dayton, which I just loved. Many of the teachers were black and loved us dearly and expected great things from us. However, we had a white PE teacher when I was in the second grade. She was a likeable teacher and years later my younger sister and I laughed about an exercise she had us do in the gym. We are not sure if she realized the true meaning of what she was doing; but she had all the Negro (that was the term then) children sing a little "ditty" and act it out. The words were "Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton, Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of hay. Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton, Oh Lordy, pick a bale of hay!" In which I kid you not, we put our hands up in the air and shook them Al Jolson style on the "Oh Lordy" words. I don't know if the teacher realized what she was doing and how she watched an entire gym of black children sing this without thinking about the undercurrent. But I know when I sang this once in front of my mother, she stopped me. My mom had been a sharecropper's grandchild and hated the experience of having to pick cotton as a 7-year-old when she visited her grandparents in Marion, Ala. Apparently, it was not a fun experience in those Jim Crow days. Only later did I understand my mother's anger about that song, and why she never made us kids call people ma'am or sir (you called them Mrs. or Mr.). She viewed that as slavery behavior. Anyway, the vision of all those beautiful brown kids singing that still makes my sister and I laugh at the irony of it.