This framed postcard sits on my desk. I like to think he is teaching this child my favorite quote…
“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
My First Public Speaking Experience
(This is NOT intended as a political post)
Try to put yourself in my shoes….
I am standing on a big stage, pretending with all my might that I am somehow hidden behind the podium. I am looking out over a huge, newly built auditorium. The house is full. I am one of only ten white people in this entire gathering. My white-ness highlighted by my San Diego sun bleached long, straight hair. I am at Miles College just outside Birmingham in Fairfield, Alabama. There is a blurry sea of faces, made up of a few hundred black students, teachers and local residents. They are silent, staring at me expectantly, although from my nineteen year old, extremely white perspective, I see them as glaring skeptically.
There are nine other nervous VISTA Volunteers up here on this stage with me. We are supposed to speak to this audience. Our task? To describe our noble purpose for moving into this all Black suburb. (I am actually, here to justify my well-intentioned, but naïvely condescending intrusion into their community.)
Right this minute though, I am not thinking about race. I am thinking about stage fright. I am wondering how in the world I ended up here? How am I supposed to open my mouth, let alone speak coherently in front of all these people? Me, who, completely terrified just a couple of years before, risked a failing grade in high school English by skipping school, rather than getting up in front of Mrs. Little’s class to read a book report out loud.
I remind myself, I am here because I am “called”. But, I am seriously questioning my sanity on this night. I mean really…what was I thinking???
And why in the hell am I the first speaker?
It is just after 6 PM on April 4th, 1968.
I had learned about more in Mrs. Little’s English class than just book reports. At Natchez-Adams County High School in the state of Mississippi, 1964-66, I also learned about an attitude, a fiercely held and fought for belief system I could never have imagined as I was growing up on the blissful beaches of Southern California with my colorblind friends. (Well, some of them DID see shades of brown in our Chicano friends and neighbors…a mystery to me though.)
When I first arrived in Natchez, Rebel Flags flying everywhere, there was a welcoming banner across the main street downtown that proudly announced,
“Where the Old South still lives….and ALWAYS WILL”
They were serious. There wasn’t a single black student in my school. It was still in the days of “colored” and “white” drinking fountains, two separate movie theaters, and the one that always got to me was Men’s, Women’s and “Colored” restrooms in the gas stations.
Attending high school in Natchez definitely changed the direction of my life. My ears were pricked, my eyes ripped opened, and my heart was bitch-slapped into an adult reality my first day there.
Granted, the seeds for my shift from a Beach Boys “California Girl” to a Bob Dylan/Joan Baez devotee had been planted a couple of years earlier, but I had no context for the significance of that first wake up call.
In the summer of 1963, my aunt and uncle, “Yankees” from up North, asked me to join them on a road trip down Dylan’s Highway 61. They were moving from Chicago to Natchez and they wanted my teenage babysitting expertise to keep my youngest cousin entertained on the long journey. Somewhere toward the end of that trip, we found ourselves delayed by long lines of Black people on foot, trudging along at a snail’s pace, clogging the roadway in both directions. I now believe it was probably a Voter’s Registration march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, with Joan Baez at his side, but I have not been able to confirm that.
All I know for sure is that I had the miraculous experience of somehow ending up at the front of those bedraggled columns and getting to shake hands with Dr. King himself. I can’t remember a single word spoken though I know he said something to me. But I can still see his kind eyes and feel his hand, grown-up shaking my own, and his other hand patting the back of my wrist.
At the time, other than sensing its magnitude, I had no clue what this moment would mean to me for the rest of my life. That the marchers were primarily Black simply did not register with me. I was only twelve years old. But the combination of the fortuitous intersection with that march, and the terrifying and enlightening culture shock I would experience three years later when I ended up in living in Natchez, has continued to influence my life today.
Back on the stage at the Miles College Auditorium……..
I came here tonight determined to somehow cross the racial barrier and reach “these people”. Surely they will see that I am the exception to their assumptions about white people. I understood their plight. I had lived in Natchez, Mississippi for God’s sake. In Mr. Whittington’s Geometry class in my junior year, I sat behind the son of the Grand Dragon of the KKK. (He told me I’d better “behave”.) I saw a cross burned in a yard for a simple crime committed by a five year old boy. He was seen kissing the family’s maid out in their driveway. I was personally taunted and threatened because someone got a hold of my Mission Bay High School yearbook from San Diego and discovered an autograph from my friend, our exchange student from Columbia, right next to the picture of his coal black face.
Surely they can see that I am NOT RACIST, that I understand…..
VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) founded by Sergeant Shriver in the 1960’s, was like a domestic Peace Corps. Our project in Fairfield was the very first VISTA project allowed into Alabama, the last state to hold out. Our stated purpose here in Fairfield was “Community Education and Relations”. And though were not allowed to acknowledge it, we all knew we were really covert Civil Rights workers.
Our project was based at and around Miles College. My individually designed mission was to set up much needed free day care centers in the plethora of local churches in this small suburb. The local norm for the many fatherless families was that the older siblings “retired” from school at about age 10 or 11 in order to stay home to care for the younger ones so their Mothers could go to work.
My hands are shaking so much the podium is rattling. Gripping my scrawled notes, I begin my “speech”. (I wish I still had those notes. They were the first self-initiated writing I ever did. I remember they were written on the insides of hoarded and flattened out envelopes. I can still see those scraps of twice-used paper swirling around and disappearing into the panicked chaos that happened 7 minutes into my allotted 10 for speaking.)
I am breathing fast and instinctively I know I have to come up with something I have in common with my listeners that has nothing to do with race. I try for light hearted camaraderie as a fellow struggling student, and my comment is met with a deafening stillness. I try a couple of over-rehearsed jokes. They fall flat. Next, I find myself blurting out a rude but innocent question. I say something about the confusion I had been experiencing in my attempts to set up my Day Care Centers.
“I am having such a hard time distinguishing between the teenage girls who stay home from school to baby sit and their extremely young looking Mothers. How do y’all have so many kids and still look so dang young?”
This gets an immediate huge and lasting laugh and I think “Whew! Thank God for women and our universal vanity!” (I did not realize for years what they were probably reacting to. Those women I referred to actually WERE as young as they looked. Many WERE teenagers and some of those mothers already had five or six kids by the time they were in their early twenties.)
That misinterpreted amusement is barely dying down when, from the back of the auditorium, a large black woman, huge breasts bouncing (funny the things we remember just prior to a disaster) comes running down the aisle, screaming, high pitched and piercing “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!”
Instantly, I am in the midst of pandemonium.
Only fleeting snapshots of the next little while are clear in my memory…..
Shock, disbelief on black faces, people falling to their knees in the isles, hands raised in hopeful prayer, some trying frantically to get out, scrambling over the backs of their row-chairs, still others forming instant group hugs with those around them.
And the sounds…I will never forget the primal wailing and soulful sobbing, and lots of swearing.
The most haunting of all the pictures I retain, is of several scattered people who were totally still with completely resigned and knowing expressions, flat affect, as if they had been waiting for this inevitable moment….
Up on the stage I go calm. (Our VISTA “Boot Camp” training as well as a lifetime of practice in delaying my own emotional reaction to dramatic things both serve me well in this moment.)
Before my audience is even finished responding to the announcement, the ten of us, wearing our shocked and terrified bright white faces, are whisked off the stage and led through previously unknown darkened hallways, like secret tunnels behind the auditorium. We are shoved into two waiting cars that drive us to a large home in the wealthy (this being a relative term) neighborhood. We were quickly ushered into the basement of the home belonging to the Pastor of the community’s largest church.
We stayed huddled there for three days.
Next Chapter: Coming out of Hiding