Coming out of Hiding
Miles College, Fairfield, AL
We were quickly ushered into the basement of the home belonging to the Pastor of the community’s largest church…..
We were guarded, the ten of us, in a dry, clean enough, cramped basement (think 1950’s rumpus room.) I think we knew that we were being protected but they fed and watered us like terrified prisoners, completely confused about our crimes.
We finally got word from our VISTA Project Supervisor through our host, the Pastor. The relayed message was that we were free to go back to our separate housings now, but, if we felt compelled to participate in the rumored Memorial March to Birmingham’s city hall in honor of the passing of Dr. King, we could not, in any way, identify ourselves with or make reference to VISTA. Like in the then popular TV series, we were given the Mission Impossible disclaimer “The director will disavow any knowledge of….” (This was also the nick name for our particular VISTA Project.)
In other words, we could join the memorial but we would be completely on our own….and it would be dangerous.
The danger, as well as the denunciation from our project leaders was no surprise. We had been thoroughly briefed in our intense, 6 week, training in Atlanta before we came here. We were endlessly briefed about how to keep our VISTA project from getting thrown out of Alabama.
We had even role played many scenarios about how to stay safe and talk our way out of a variety of situations. For example, if the locals (especially the authorities) found any of us alone with a Black person, even another “volunteer” who happened to be Black, we had very specific things we were coached to say by way of locally acceptable excuses for such abhorrent behavior. (It wasn’t until years later I realized all those exercises for our safety were about white people hurting us, especially police. We were embedded in a middle class, again relatively speaking, all Black college town, and it didn’t occur to anyone that we might be in danger from the people we were there to help…)
All those warnings didn’t matter now though. Many of us had been drawn here in the first place, by the work of Dr. King. He was certainly my number one teacher. We were devastated.
Before King’s assassination, way back on my third day in Fairfield, I had ventured out from our tiny shared living quarters to the little mom and pop grocery store across the street from the college. I was surprised to see a pretty young white women about my age shopping there. I had arrogantly assumed that we VISTA’s were the only Caucasians in town. She came right up to me and looked me straight in the eyes. She said she was an exchange student from a Christian College up North. She had heard we were coming. She knew why we were in town. With a heartbroken expression, she warned me about something that, in my intense idealism, I defensively could not comprehend. All she said was, “No matter how badly you want to, you will never be black.” Then she turned and like a wizened old woman, very slowly walked out.
Her words came back to me now as we prepared to march, but I was a True Believer. I was going to stand up for ending racism in a non-violent way. I was not afraid. Dr. King was as much my loss as anyone’s. Nothing could have held me back. (Ah, the idealistic mindset of a 19 year old. Hmm, isn’t that the age we send our youth to war?)
So off we went, to march with our Black Brothers and Sisters, fully expecting that we might die for our cause that day. It is 6 miles from Fairfield to Birmingham. I was never afraid, even as we passed through the rougher parts of town, where on one corner, there were groups of Blacks shaking chains and brandishing knives at us and on the next corner, Whites yelling out the standard “nigger lover” threats. I felt hated by all but motivated by a much bigger force cursing through me. I just kept marching and I sang until my voice was completely gone….Amazing Grace and We Shall Overcome….over and over and over until we arrived at the courthouse. I have no words to describe the feeling of blissful oneness and pure honesty I felt that day.
I heard later there were 10,000 of us, and an estimated 10 % were white. As the Mayor of Birmingham addressed the crowd, he actually choked up when he said something like Dr. “King was an honorable enough Negro. Just look how he brought our white people and the Negroes together today”, a sight this mayor said he never thought he’d live to see in his city.
I will never forget that day, that feeling of raw, unconditional hope…the uncomplicated, indisputable knowledge of being connected to all of humankind. It became the bedrock of my life’s work as a Psychotherapist, working with the most traumatized and shortchanged of people. My mission in life continues to be finding and providing proof to people that two seemingly opposing truths can co-exist, even complement and enhance each other….like what I witnessed that day on the lawn outside the court house in Birmingham. Blacks and Whites hated each other but they came together, united in their grief over Dr. King.
My youthful, ferocious belief in the possible end of bigotry dulled over the next few years, to the point that I almost gave it up. I hid my idealistic conviction even from my closest people. But that tiny flame would still flicker when I would see something normal and lovely and equal happening between and among the races.
And it will never blow out completely. I’ll fan that flame until the day I die. Here’s why.
All those years ago in Fairfield, the other “job” we had as Vista Volunteers was to teach A.B.E. (Adult Basic Education) in night school at the college. My favorite student was an 80 year old preacher who was learning to read his bible. He said before he died, he just wanted to be able to actually “read God’s words, not just memberize ’em”. One night he told me that his grandfather had been a slave in Birmingham and that his grandchildren now lived in a rat town housing project on the same property where his grandfather used to pick cotton. My sweet Pastor shook his head sadly and said, “I always prayed my grand chillen would get to see the true end of slavery but they still slaves to the white man, living under his thumb. You young. Maybe you grand chillen get to see it.”
Well, not that long ago, my two grandsons got a glimpse. I first started writing this on January 21st, 2009, the day the United States of America elected Obama as their 44th and my “grand chillen” have an un-erasable Black President as part of their history.
Those boys are 10 and 12 years old now, and their grandmother is committed to teaching them about the symbolism of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama and the hard work it took all of us to get even this far.
Flame officially fanned!