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!
Oh my gosh, I LOVED this!!!
I came across some fabulous pictures via Twitter. It’s a collection of all sorts of photos, not just animals – some are of the natural world, some animals, some people, some scenery, some man made things, but they are all fantastic in their own way.
I have chosen my Top 10 animal ones (which made me smile), but it was really hard to narrow it down to just ten, so I might have to do a Top Ten Animals part 2 some other time.
Unfortunately the original source of the photos is not often mentioned, but I have credited where I can.
View original post 53 more words
There was a delightful song going around on You Tube right a few years back, by Amy-Dixon Kolar called “Rosa Sat”.
The lyrics are so simple but capture a long and mighty crusade, a movement I am once again hopeful and proud to be a miniscule part of…….
So Martin could walk
Martin walked so Barack could run
He ran and he won
So that all our children could fly
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
I’ve already posted several times for this topic but after reading
this morning I was reminded of a long held treasure of my own right here on the couch.
A dear friend spent a whole year stitching me this lovely pillow cover. I mess with beads but this stitching stuff is a mystery to me. I can’t imagine what it took to do this piece. No one in my family is allowed to use it, and the cat that caused the tiny snag on the lower left edge was nearly banished for his treachery!
I’ve had my hair cut by the same woman for well over 30 years. I’d follow her anywhere. But this is by far her most unusual location. She has a tiny one chair salon deep inside this old building in Seattle, among several very small odds and ends businesses, and surrounded by this wasted (in my opinion) hidden treasure from early in another century.