Wednesday, August 9, 2017


The March

We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Oh deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day.

- from the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, derived from an old gospel song and popularized by Pete Seeger in the early 1960s

            Our family reunited over dinner later that day, eager to share our experiences, acutely aware of how right we had been about the importance of going out into the community despite the possible danger.  We felt safer than ever in our small community of Mound Bayou, loved and appreciated, accepted and protected.  Only a few days later, however, an incident occurred that reminded us of the tenuous nature of our situation.  It was early evening and with the exception of Philip, who was out with friends, the family  had settled down for the evening.  Jo was studying in her bedroom, Leon and I sat in the dining room, quietly discussing the day’s events, and beautiful music filled the air as Charles played the piano in the second trailer. 
            Suddenly, we heard a loud noise on our roof, sounding almost like thunder.  Jo and Charles came running into the dining room, scared by the relentless racket.  Jo knew more than the rest of us did, for she had seen a large rock the size of a grapefruit hit her window screen.  We realized then what was causing the noise.  We were being stoned.
            I herded the children under the dining room table for safety and moved to join them myself.  Before I could, however, our phone rang.  It was our next-door neighbor, Earl Lucas, calling to say he could see the attackers in the field behind our house.  He told us to stay inside and keep our heads low while he tried to scare them away. Leon and I watched out the window as Earl climbed up on his roof, holding a shotgun.  Concerned for his safety as well as our own, we gazed at his silhouette against the moonlit sky, a perfect target for the assailants.  As we watched, he raised his gun and fired out over the field.  After several terrifying minutes, the shots ceased and we breathed a sigh of relief.  Before any of us had time to digest what had happened, the phone rang again.  It was Earl, calling to say the troublemakers had fled.
           The week following Dr. King’s death was bedlam not only for us, but also for people across the nation.  Our local teenagers ached to participate in the protests, but because Mound Bayou was an all-Black town, they lacked a target.  Of course we were there, along with the handful of other white people associated with the clinic, but with the exception of the stoning episode, they would never take out their anger on us.  We were their friends, part of their community.  With no one against whom they could rebel, the restlessness grew.

             Meanwhile, 4 miles north of us, the small town of Shelby had both black and white sections.  The black high school students wanted to demonstrate against the white power structure but were afraid to do so.  Instead, they asked the administrators at their all-black school to set aside a day of commemoration as we had done in Mound Bayou.  Fearful of retaliation from the nearby white population, the administration refused.  In response, 50 Shelby students picked up a school bus, turned it around and placed it on the grass in front of the high school.
            When our students in Mound Bayou got word of the protest, they got together with the students from Shelby and decided to stage a non-violent civil rights demonstration.  The elders of both towns helped the teenagers plan a march through Shelby.  A route was drawn up, beginning in the black section of town, continuing on through the white neighborhoods, and concluding at City Hall and the town square.
            Philip was deeply involved in the planning from the start.  When I learned that a few of our high school teachers were going to march with the students, I asked if I could join them.  On the day of the march, Philip went off with his friends and I rode to Shelby with my fellow teachers.  When we arrived on the outskirts of town, we parked the car and joined five or six hundred other participants, mostly teenagers.  Several black men with bullhorns served as our leaders, calling out instructions as to where to stand and how to conduct ourselves as we prepared to march, making it clear to everyone that we were to follow all police orders.
Nothing I had read or heard before prepared me for the shock I felt when I first saw the police cars.  There were 9 of them lined up next to the marchers, each with a driver, and a second officer holding a rifle pointed out the window.  Police dogs occupied the back seats, looking fierce and ready to attack.  Accustomed to viewing the police as friendly and helpful – as they’d been in Boston – it had taken Leon and me some time to internalize what we’d been taught when we first moved to Mississippi, that the local police were dangerous and many were active members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Seeing the police that day in Shelby, it was easy to see why the black community feared them.
Not wanting to give the police any excuse for violence, we did as they instructed, lining up in pairs and staying obediently on the sidewalk.  I could see Philip near the front of the line, standing boldly with his friends.  He was easy to spot, as he and I were the only two white people there.  As I looked around to find someone with whom to march, a tall, young man, perhaps 18 years old, introduced himself and requested the privilege of being my marching partner.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
"No,” he said, “but I’m a student at Shelby High and I’ve heard about you.  It would be an honor to walk with you.”  As I smiled and nodded yes, he positioned himself between the police cars and me,  using his body as a shield.  In so doing, he put himself in danger from the police or anyone else who might be offended by our demonstration.  Although he had said it would be an honor to walk with me, I knew the honor was mine. 
            Our leaders spoke respectfully with the police, assuring them we had every intention of remaining peaceful.  The police in turn emphasized the importance of our remaining in an orderly line, never more than 2 marchers abreast.  This was ostensibly so we wouldn’t block anyone’s way on the sidewalk, but the real reason was to ensure we remained spread out at all times and thus easier to control, should trouble arise.  They made it clear that if we failed to do exactly as we were told, our march would be broken up by force.  In response, our organizers announced that we were to hold hands with our partners to better keep our lines straight and orderly.
           I heard my marching partner inhale sharply and suddenly realized the delicacy of our situation.  In Mississippi in 1968, a black man could be killed for taking the hand of a white woman.  My young partner was unsure of what he should do, terrified of the potential response from the police just a few feet away.  Without hesitation, I took the initiative and took his hand, showing all around us – and especially the police – that it was my choice to do so.  Wondering how Philip and his partner were handling the situation, I looked toward the front of the line and saw him standing calmly, hand-in-hand with a young black woman.
            The signal was given and we began to walk slowly down the sidewalk.  I looked into the street and noticed that a police car was staying beside my partner and me, the officer in the passenger seat pointing his rifle at my partner the entire time.  I was later told that had I even tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, the young man would have been shot.  Having grown up in Mississippi, he well knew the risk he was taking.  How brave he was!
            Our march began through the black part of town, which consisting of only 5 unpaved streets.  On one side of the first street, there were vacant lots, open to the cotton fields in the distance.  On the other, the side on which we marched, small wooden shacks lined the street, each so rundown it was hard to believe people inhabited them.  They had small, rickety front porches, and each was furnished with one or two old, rickety rocking chairs.
            Before I was close enough to make out the details of the houses, I heard music.  People were singing hymns as we approached.  As we drew nearer we could see that every rocking chair was occupied by an elderly person, singing as we marched by.  They waved to us, and cheered us on with their voices raised in song.  Many cried in a mixture of hope and pride as they watched us pass, a hope that these teenagers, willing to risk so much to make their voices heard, might change the world around us.  Their songs told us they were with us in spirit, they supported us, they were proud of us.  As we moved from house to house, the hymns varied, but the outpouring of love was constant.
As we marched, I couldn’t help but wonder what the police were thinking as they drove slowly along beside us.  Had they no compassion, no understanding, no feeling for their fellow human beings?  How would folks back home ever understand how I felt, listening to those beautiful voices, watching the police cars, feeling the strength of the young man beside me, being part of a group of hundreds with one common purpose – civil liberty for all.
            What a change half an hour later when we marched into the white section of town.  It was a different world.  Instead of dirt roads, there were paved streets lined by well-kept sidewalks.  Rather than tiny wooden shacks, handsome brick and stone homes with manicured lawns stood alongside the streets.  Instead of the warmth of voices raised in song, there was absolute silence and not a soul in sight, for the residents had locked up their homes as tightly as possible.  Drapes were drawn, streets were deserted, the quiet relentless.
            We marched for close to 2 hours, finally arriving in front of City Hall.  We stopped there and knelt down to pray – prayers of thanks that no one had been hurt, prayers of gratitude for the support we’d experienced from Shelby’s elderly black community, prayers of hope for the futures of all our teenage marchers, and prayers for the enlightenment of those who feared us.  Was anybody inside City Hall watching us?  Did anybody care?  What were they thinking?
            After those few minutes, we resumed marching, and having come full circle, stood in front of one of the black churches.  The students went off to Shelby’s town square, congratulating each other on the success of the day.  The 20 or so adults who had participated were feeling more somber.  We stood close together on the steps of the church and sang We Shall Overcome, just as we had done at the high school a few days before.  My throat was so tight with emotion I could barely make a sound.
            As we stood there, the police officers who had accompanied us during our march pulled up in a line facing us and turned off their motors.  They sat there staring, their rifles pointed our way.  We continued to sing for about 20 minutes, standing and swaying, clasping each other’s hands tightly, and quietly defying the officers.  I wondered what they were feeling, now that our march had ended without incident.  Were they relieved?  Would they have preferred a conflict?
            When Philip and I arrived home, we were tired and footsore, but happy.  The day had provided a catharsis, easing some of the pain we felt over the death of Dr. King.  Although that great man could no longer personally lead civil rights marches, his work and words would live on in those of us who recognized their importance. My students tackled their assignments with renewed vigor, eager to discover everything they could about Dr. King’s life and what he’d stood for, and I used their zeal as a springboard for all kinds of discussions.  My time in the classroom was so rewarding that I lived on a perpetual high.  Despite that, I could never forget that in the world around us, new atrocities occurred every day.  Blacks were beaten and murdered, children and the elderly were starving, and I realized how ignorant we’d been in our prior lives in the north.  
           I thought about Dr. King’s statement that if things didn’t change, “it will be because of the inaction of the good people.”  Prior to our decision to move to Mound Bayou, we had been among those “good people.”  Our ethics and morals were sound.  We cared about those less fortunate than ourselves.  We gave what we could to charity and supported politicians we believed would help the downtrodden.  We thought we were doing all that we could do or needed to do, but what we didn’t realize was that things were desperate in places like Mississippi.  Our efforts had been woefully inadequate.

             It took living in Mound Bayou to rid us of our complacent attitude, to make us realize we had to look for more ways to help. Trying to figure out how became our major topic of conversation, whether over the dinner table, driving in the car, or going for a walk – a rare treat since Leon often worked late and when he came home, he was tired.

One night toward the end of the school year, we set out just after dark for a stroll around town.  At first, our conversation was similar to many we’d had before.  We told each other what had happened during the day, sharing triumphs and failures, and discussing ways to tackle problems.  We chatted about the children and how they were developing.
It wasn’t long before we crossed the railroad tracks and turned onto the highway, finding ourselves in front of one of the bars.  As we peered in the window, I was surprised to see two of my brightest students sitting there.  Disturbed to see them drinking, I told Leon I wanted to go in and talk with them.  As I approached, I could see that the two were not mildly intoxicated, they were drunk.  I was so na├»ve I hadn't realized that many of my students were sitting on these stools night after night, drinking themselves into oblivion.
I tried to persuade the two young men to leave, but they said, “Why should we go?  What else is there to do?  It doesn’t matter if we drink because there’s no future for us.”  Their desperation was clear, and I had to do something about it.
            Later that night, as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, their words echoed in my mind.  I couldn’t argue with their logic, for there was nothing for them in this town.  With the exception of a few retail jobs, there was no work except picking cotton.  What I could do?  To whom could I turn for help.  After several restless hours, the answer came to me: I resolved to call my friend, Leonard Zion, the Dean for Under-graduates at Brandeis University in Boston.
I reached Leonard first thing in the morning.  After we caught up on all that had happened since the last time we saw each other, I told him of my sleepless night filled with anger and frustration over the plight of my students.  I expressed to him how helpless I felt and pleaded, “Leonard, do something.”
He promised to help.  A few days later, he got back to me with thrilling news.  Brandeis University had agreed to accept 3 of my students on a 5-year scholarship covering tuition, room and board, private tutors, plus $10 a week in spending money.
            Leonard had done what he could.  Now, it was my turn.  Identifying the 3 students was a joyful task, as I thought about how their lives could be improved by this wonderful opportunity.  At the same time, my joy was mixed with sorrow.  Whoever moved to Boston would not have an easy time.  The academic challenge would be difficult, and the emotional challenge even more so.  The students would be uprooted from everything they’d ever known and thrown into an environment where their presence could make some of those around them uncomfortable or even hostile.
            I spoke at length with the 3 students I chose and with their families.  Everyone involved recognized the opportunity being offered.  All that remained was for us to raise the money to buy plane tickets and suitable clothing.  The hat was passed at the local churches the following Sunday and it was heartwarming to see the outpouring of support for these 3 young men.  They represented the town’s hope for the future, the possibility that the next generation would find opportunities where none had existed before.  It wasn’t long before the necessary funds were raised and we began planning for their departure.
            As we did so, it occurred to me that we needed to consider sending Philip away as well.  My 14-year-old son was finishing his freshman year of high school, and while I was confident that the long-term future for him was bright, we had become disturbed about what might happen to him in the short term.  I thought about seeing my young students getting drunk the night Leon and I had been out walking, and envisioned Philip sitting on those same stools.  I cringed at the prospect but recognized that it could happen.  As I look back, I see how blind I was to the reality of the situation, for Philip was already well known at that very same bar.
            Leon and I had other concerns as well.  The education Philip was receiving at the local high school was woefully inadequate.  His coursework in the 9th grade was equivalent to what he’d already covered by the 7th grade back in Newton.  We tried to make up for this at home, but this was hard to do because Philip naturally preferred spending time with his friends to studying with his parents.  Moreover, one of my students, Truman, told us he was worried about Philip’s safety because he had a crush on a local girl.  Her boyfriend was outraged and Truman was afraid he might become violent.
            I was surprised when Leon promptly agreed to my suggestion that we send Philip north at the same time as my 3 students.  I knew my husband shared my concerns, but he was more likely than I to assume  everything would work out for the best.  I later discovered he had his own reason for extricating our son from Mound Bayou. If I’d known it at the time, I would have taken action immediately and not waited for the start of the next school year.  The KKK had promised a $5,000 reward to anyone who successfully put an end to Philip’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.  Given the KKK’s tendency toward violence, this meant that Philip was likely to end up severely beaten or worse.
The more we talked about all the problems facing Philip, the more we realized he couldn’t stay in Mound Bayou with us.  So as spring drew to a close, we began the painful task of looking for a new home for Philip.  I was devastated.
It is easy to say now, many years later, that I should have at least considered the possibility of moving the entire family away from Mound Bayou, rather than just sending Philip on his own.  Given that the probability for disaster had risen significantly, nobody would have faulted us for giving up and leaving for a safer environment.  At the time, however, the thought never crossed my mind.  As much as I knew I would miss my son, I was confident that we could find a good situation for him, one in which he could thrive.  After all, hadn’t I provided a home for my nephew just a couple of years earlier?  Surely my sister would return the favor.
But when I asked for help, Karyl reluctantly told me she just couldn’t cope with one more teenager in the household.  Boarding school wasn’t an option, for we didn’t have the money.  My parents were too old and set in their ways, and Leon’s parents had passed on years earlier.  As one option after another failed to materialize, I grew more and more desperate, yet I never considered modifying our plans.  We were too busy trying to place one foot in front of the other to realize that we might not be following the best path.
I’d been brought up never to admit defeat.  Problems were to be handled without complaint, without turning to others for help.  I could hear my father criticizing anyone seeking a handout from the government.  He’d tell my sister and me that we were always to help ourselves, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  And we were never to expect sympathy from him or anybody else.
It wasn’t just my father who hammered into us the need to be self-reliant.  Grandma Lena fostered the same attitude, though in a gentler manner.  Once, when I was feeling sorry for myself after dragging 8 barrels of trash up our long driveway, she told me how fortunate I was to have the strength to do it.  When her friends would comment on how hard she worked at the Cape helping to watch her great-grandchildren, she said, “It’s a lucky woman who has a reason to get out of bed at my age.”
She never indulged in self-pity, working hard her entire life and enjoying every minute of it, never seeming to care whether others knew of her efforts.  I didn’t have her self-confidence.  It bothered me that Leon’s mother never acknowledged what a struggle it had been for me to support our household through all his years of medical school and the early days of his practice.  I’d often heard my mother-in-law, Nannie Annie, say of her daughter, “My poor Helen” and wished that just once she’d say it about me.  My sister-in-law was well off, had live-in help, and enjoyed a great deal of leisure time.  I was striving to make ends meet, did all the household chores, and had almost no time to rest.  I longed to hear my mother-in-law say, “Poor Aura.”
Finally, one time when I’d picked up my grandmother and mother-in-law so they could join our family for lunch, I listened as the two women chatted on the back porch while I cleaned up in the kitchen.  Then, I overheard Nannie Annie, “Poor Aura, she works so hard.”  I was so pleased I almost laughed out loud.  Later, after I had dropped Nannie off at home and was alone in the car with Grandma Lena, she started to talk.
“Aura, you know how much I love you.”
“Yes, Grandma.”
“More than life itself.”
“Yes, Grandma.”
“So you know I say this because I care about you…Don’t ever let me hear anyone say, ‘Poor Aura’ again!  If you’re tired and working too hard, you don’t let anyone know.  You put on makeup, dress well, and hold your head up high.”  As I listened to the advice I knew she’d always lived by it herself, I was too embarrassed to admit how much I’d craved hearing those words from Nannie Annie.  Somehow, my desire to be pitied evaporated.  I saw the difference between wanting recognition, which is healthy, and pity, which is not.  I never again longed to hear “poor Aura!”
It was natural for me to assume, despite our setbacks, that we would figure out a plan for Philip.  And something else was going on as well: I didn’t consider modifying our plans and leaving Mound Bayou because I didn’t want to go.  For the first time in my life, I had a career that was taking off in every way imaginable.  I loved my students and they loved me.  Each day in the classroom brought new challenges and rewards.  I’d won the respect not only the students, but also the faculty, the administration, and the parents.   And I didn’t want to give that up.
Borrowing some of Leon’s confidence that everything would work out in the end, I avoided addressing the question of whether I cared more about my family’s well being or my teaching career.  I was convinced that despite the early disappointments, something good would appear for Philip and I could continue in the classroom.  We just had to keep looking for the right opportunity.
When it showed itself, it was from a totally unexpected quarter.  I’d been talking on the phone with Connie, now finishing her sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts, telling her of our quandary.  She said, “What about us?  He could live with Greg and me and go to Amherst High School.”
The Amherst school district was excellent, similar in many ways to the Newton schools.  Philip would be with family, something I valued tremendously.  Connie and Greg would not just take care of him; they would love him.  As much as I wanted to say yes, however, Connie was only 19 and still in college.  Not only that, she and Greg were about to be married.  How could I ask newlyweds to open their home to a younger brother?  It would be marvelous for Philip, but a big responsibility for Connie and Greg.  Connie suggested I give it some thought, assuring me she and Greg would be fine.  The pressure was off.  Leon and I still spent time considering other options, but in the back of our minds, we knew we could accept Connie’s generous offer.
With the decision about Philip’s future almost settled, my thoughts turned to our upcoming trip to Boston and Connie and Greg’s wedding.  My oldest child was getting married and I was returning to my childhood home, the town where Leon and I first fell in love, the city where we nurtured his growing pediatric practice, the community where we had raised our children.  Why wasn’t I more excited?
Slowly, the truth dawned on me.  Newton was no longer my home; I had moved on.  We all had.  We were completely caught up in our lives in Mississippi and felt as if we no longer belonged in Boston.  The life we’d treasured the previous year had lost its value.  Of course it would be good to see our family and friends, but it would also be good to return to our home in Mound Bayou.
My expectations were met in every way.  As anticipated, it was wonderful visiting with everybody, especially Connie and my folks, and seeing my oldest child happily married.  But the whole time we were there, my thoughts were on Mound Bayou, on what more I could do for my students, who would never know the luxury of the life we had taken for granted in Boston.
It was an eye-opener to experience that opulence once again and realize how uncomfortable it made us.  When we lived in Newton, we viewed ourselves as middle-class, struggling to keep up financially as Leon built his practice and we paid off all the bills from medical school.  Not until we moved to Mississippi did we understand how well off we’d been all those years, and how few people were that fortunate.
When I compared our life in Mound Bayou with what it had been before, I knew I was happy we’d made the move.  We didn’t miss the luxuries and it felt good to be part of something important.  Despite my happiness, however, that summer after we returned to Mississippi was a lonely time for me.  Leon worked long hours at the clinic and the children were rarely at home.  Without my students to keep me busy, I had too much time on my hands.  Fortunately, the tedium was broken by the opening of a new park and swimming hole, provided compliments of Bolivar County.  For once, the prejudice of the white citizens of Cleveland worked to our advantage.  The County had approved an elaborate park and swimming pool for the residents of Cleveland, leading to discussions of how the white community could stop the Blacks from using the facilities.  The federal government wouldn’t allow the County to declare them “Whites Only,” so a more creative solution was needed.  The County created a similar recreational space near Mound Bayou, with the understanding that black people would go there, rather than to the park in Cleveland.
 Knowing how the children loved to swim, I was surprised they didn’t head for the new swimming hole every day.  It wasn’t until years later that Jo told me she couldn’t go in the water without being molested.  Boys would swim up to her and try to put their hands inside her bathing suit, even if I was sitting only 20 feet away on the shore.  She never confided in Leon and me about what was going on.  She was too embarrassed.  Now, 35 years later, our teachers discuss responsible social behavior and children are told to speak up if anyone abuses them.  Jo didn’t have that kind of support, and Leon and I didn’t know it was needed.
As the summer drew to a close, I decided to go back to college to earn a teaching certificate.  I called the education department head at Delta State College, 8 miles away in Cleveland, to schedule an appointment to discuss my options.  The secretary asked for my name, address, and phone number, and said someone would get back to me.  Several days later, I hadn’t heard from anyone, so I called again and was told the department head was still unavailable.  With the term starting in a couple of weeks, I was worried I’d miss the registration deadline, so I asked that my request for an appointment be given some priority.  The secretary said, “You’ll have to wait and someone will return your call.”
When another week went by with no response, I tried once again.  This time, the secretary was brusque, acting annoyed by my repeated calls.  I couldn’t even be sure she’d been passing on my requests for an interview.  I said that if she didn’t give me an appointment immediately, I would just show up and wait in the office.  She reluctantly agreed to give me an appointment for the next day.
I drove to Cleveland the next morning, filled with anticipation.  I loved being a student and the thought of once again attending college was exhilarating.  As I walked from my car to the education department office, I looked around at the beautiful campus, breathing in the fresh air and the scent of the magnolia trees and mimosa blossoms.  I could feel the sun warming my skin and hear the birds singing.  I  remembered my mother telling Karyl and me as small children always to appreciate our natural surroundings, and thought of how she would enjoy these surroundings.
My mood soared as I found the education department and introduced myself to the secretary.  She pointed me toward her boss’s office and I walked in.  I found a middle-aged man sitting behind his desk with his feet up, staring down at a paper.  He ignored me, refusing to acknowledge my presence.  After what seemed like a very long time, I cleared my throat to get his attention and he looked up.  When he saw me, he rose hastily, came around the desk, obviously flustered, and led me to a chair saying, “I beg your pardon, I thought you were…”
I suddenly knew what he was going to say.  He thought I was black.  He never finished his sentence, but the look on his face made the rest of it obvious.  Now I understood why he hadn’t called me back and had been so rude when I first entered his office.  When his secretary gathered information from me during my first phone call, she assumed from my address that I was black.  Delta State College, although bound by law to accept black students, was still an all-white institution.
Despite my dismay at discovering I wouldn’t have been admitted had I been black, I registered for classes and began work on a Master’s degree.  I thought about my difficulties in our early days in Mound Bayou when I was ostracized for having used a “Whites Only” bathroom and knew it was no longer an issue.  I’d been so completely accepted by the community that no one would object.  Instead, the parents and my colleagues would be pleased I was devoting my time and energy to improving my abilities as a teacher.
In the last week of summer before school started, I found myself with mixed feelings.  I was eager to be back in the classroom with my students, yet sad at the thought of Philip going away.  He’d be happy with Connie and Greg, and safer than if he stayed in Mound Bayou, but his departure left an ache in my heart.  Only two of my four children remained, and our home felt empty.  I couldn’t wait for the school year to get underway so my students could fill the void. . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment