My friend and I make our way through the flurry of policemen and townspeople gathered in front of the store. We enter through the glass doors. Inside, people stand in the aisles between low open counters of merchandise. To the left, large signs hang over the lunch counter. “Turkey Dinner — 80 cents,” “Iced Tea — 10 cents.” The place: the Woolworth’s five and dime store in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. The time: 1963.
I can see their backs, even through the crowd. Four men and women — two whites, two blacks — sit alone on the steel-backed stools at the long lunch counter. We push through the crowd of onlookers to get to a spot where we can see their faces. They’re looking ahead, impervious to the verbal abuse being flung at them, indifferent to the liquids dripping from their hair onto their faces and running down their backs.
Most of the hecklers are young, faces expressionless or sneering with contempt. They’ve taken everything that sits on the counter — catsup, mustard, sugar, glasses of soda or water — and emptied the contents on the heads of those who sit in protest. There are no police inside the store and I’m scared — worried that these men and women will be hurt. Don’t they see how outnumbered they are? But I can’t get involved: if I do, I will get into trouble at school, so my friend and I thread our way back through the crowd and leave.
Ben was the first person with brown skin who I had ever seen up close. He was gentle and kind-hearted, and, like me, he grew quiet and shy around people he didn’t know. My much older sisters, Shirley and Betty, addressed him as Ben, so I did too, even though I was told to use Mr. or Mrs. before the names of other adults.
It was a hot summer day — Mississippi hot. Ben had worked all morning, mowing the grass and weeding our large rectangular rose garden. Usually, my father would bring lunch for Ben to eat under the trees or on the back steps, especially when we had friends or family visiting, but today he called out from the back door, “Ben, come on in and get some lunch.”
I was six or seven at the time and perched on one of the highest branches of our magnolia tree. The tree offered a bird’s-eye view; and its large white blossoms sent out a lemony-sweet fragrance in all directions. I made my way down the tree, swinging from the lowest branch onto the ground, and followed Ben inside the house, even though I had already eaten lunch. Ben sat at the old metal-legged dinette table on the back porch by himself, his long-sleeved shirt wet with perspiration.
Through the open windows, a faint breeze carried the scent of freshly mowed grass which blended with the mouth-watering aroma of my mother’s fried chicken. I could see the red, yellow, and pink roses in the garden, the clothesline that stretched across the back yard with just-washed clothes hung all along it, and beyond the clothesline, the chicken yard, with its noisy flock of hens, roosters, and guineas.
My mother placed a dish of chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits in front of Ben while my father added milk and sugar to a cup of coffee. The next image is oddly frozen in my mind. It is of my father serving Ben the coffee in a Mason jar. My mother used Mason jars when she canned vegetables or fruit. I remember feeling a pang of disappointment. I wondered, why couldn’t Ben drink from one of our pretty cups?
That afternoon, I asked to go along with my father when he took Ben home. “Ben, you get on up in the back of the truck since Lizzie’s going with us,” he said as he handed Ben money for the day’s work. Within a few minutes we arrived in Ben’s neighborhood. I had never been there before. The dirt road was pockmarked with holes. Our old truck bounced and creaked as it passed over them.
A clump of houses appeared in the distance. As we drew closer, I asked, “Daddy, why do they have such sad-looking houses?” In front of one house, four or five children, who were about my age, played barefoot in the dirt. When we stopped, Ben climbed out of the back, unloaded a large bag of flour, walked up to my father’s window and thanked him. He trudged wearily toward his house, the sack of flour over his shoulder. He greeted the children. A few followed him inside and the screen door sprung shut behind them.
I wondered if Ben’s wife made their children clothes out of flour sacks, as my mother did for me. My father had used a large needle and thread to sew up the torn fabric. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained: “I’m fixin’ the bags so folks can use the flour to bake bread and cakes for little girls like you.” As the oldest of six, my father had left school in the fourth grade to help support his family; he had not been able to pursue higher education, but he was good at getting whatever work was available. At the time, he worked for the L&N Railroad and often purchased damaged goods from the railway office to resell at a profit.
Once, when I asked my parents why my family did not associate with people of color, I was told that this was just how things are done. In Sunday School, we sang this hymn:
Jesus loves all the little children.
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in His sight —
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
But outside of church, love and respect for people of all colors was not always shown. Although I wasn’t aware of any mean-spirited people among our friends or family, hate seeped through the Jim Crow apartheid culture and bled into the language of children, as it did in this rhyme: “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo, Catch a N***er by His Toe, Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo.”
I was in the sixth grade by the time the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 ruled segregation unconstitutional, but segregation continued throughout my years in high school. Just before I entered the ninth grade, Mississippi history became a requirement. Our textbook espoused the pro-white, anti-integrationist political views that were common in the state in those days. The history books refused to cast any shadow on our southern heritage.
It was Easter Sunday, 1960. I was not happy about having to wake up when it was still dark. I was almost 16, and I thought I should be able to do as I wanted. My sisters were away at school, so it was just my mother and father who went with me to the beach to find a spot among the thirty or more parishioners who huddled together facing east. On a canvas of blue, illumined with a faint glimmer of light, the sun began to peek out over the water in a ball of orange-red splendor. As the minister prayed with quiet reverence, his voice was drowned out by noisy seagulls looking for handouts.
Soothed by a cool breeze and the salty gulf air, I felt lighthearted. I had almost forgotten how much I loved the Easter sunrise services that were held every year at the “rock pile,” an extension of Courthouse Road on which we lived. The “rock pile” had a large parking area which offered easy access to the beach and to the long wooden pier propped on stilts in the water.
The minister, in the short service, compared the dawn of a new day to the resurrection. And little did we know that outside of our white world there would, indeed, soon be a new day for close to a quarter of the coast’s population who had never been allowed to watch the sunrise from the vantage point we had just enjoyed.
A number of African Americans had planned a “wade-in” for the same day, to protest segregation on the public beaches. Among them was fourteen-year Clemon Jimerson who had always wanted to go on the beach, and did not understand why he couldn’t. His mother, stepfather, uncle, and sister planned to wade by his side.
There had been previous “wade-ins” but they had had only limited support. Dr. Mason’s arrest a week earlier for his one-man “wade-in,” however, had energized the black community and support had grown for this wade-in. More than 120 people were present.
The demonstrators met at 1:00 p.m. They were briefed on tactics of non-violence and then told to head out to the designated areas of the beach. Dr. Mason and his friends had been systematic. Aware that the sand beaches had been built with taxpayer funds by the Army Corps of Engineers, they had hired an attorney. They fully expected — even counted on — being arrested.
What the protesters did not expect was to encounter a mob of white men armed with pipes, chains, and two by fours provided by the owner of a local hardware store. The protest ended in chaos and violence, with the police standing idly by. Two African-Americans were killed in the riots that spanned the next few days. It would take another five years before the federal court of appeals ruled in favor of the recognizing the violations of the law committed against the black protesters on that day. It would be decades before I would even know about the atrocities that took place in the course of that simple protest.
In a photo from that afternoon, I’m standing in front of our magnolia tree showing off my new Easter clothes, a light blue cotton voile frock with fitted bodice and full skirt — complete with layers of crinoline petticoats to make the skirt stand out just right. On my head, I am wearing a matching, wide-brimmed blue hat.
We were second year nursing students at the Baptist Hospital in Jackson when my friend and I happened upon the Woolworth sit-in. The first sit-in had taken place three years earlier in Greensboro, North Carolina. Influenced by the nonviolent techniques of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the sit-in movement had arisen in response to the segregation of restaurants. The spirit of protest had spread to numerous college towns throughout the South.
Most of the protesters were faculty and students from Tougaloo, a historically black college ten miles north of Jackson. The local newspaper reported that Tougaloo was “the cancer of this racial mess,” and “filled with race agitators.” The two women who launched the protest, Pearlena Lewis and Anne Moody, were yanked by their hair and pulled onto the floor; still they fought their way back to the counter and sat down again. The one man who participated in the protest was severely beaten, taken to the hospital, and later charged with disturbing the peace.
A total of nine civil rights activists participated in the Woolworth protest, each taking a seat at the counter in defiance of segregation policies. As a kind of diversion tactic, just as the Woolworth’s protest began, a few of these protesters had picketed stores down the street. A white chaplain from Tougaloo stood in the crowd and acted as a spotter. From time to time, he left the store to make phone calls to Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP, who was monitoring the sit-in from a nearby office.
The iconic photo taken that day by Fred Blackwell, a young photographer from the Jackson Daily News appeared in numerous articles, and, later, in museums. It was also featured on the cover of M. J. O’Brien’s 2013 book, We Shall Not Be Moved. Another photo shows the gruesome image of a white man stomping on a young black man in the forefront of the Woolworth protest as he lay facedown on the floor bleeding. Eventually, the worldwide circulation of this photo would help focus attention on the violence against black people in Mississippi during the protests.
However, the protesters would not be deterred. That night, Evers told a crowd of activists that the Woolworth sit-in was only the beginning. The movement would continue, with more protests planned in Jackson. Two weeks later, Medgar Evers was murdered, shot in the back in the driveway of his home.
It’s painful now for me to look back at my own shameful ignorance of the struggle that was taking place during those years right in front of my eyes. James Baldwin described this kind of obliviousness on the part of white people as “a death of the heart.”
Over the next years and decades, I worked as a nurse, became a wife, and then a mother. Our children, three daughters and one son, would grow up, first in southern Louisiana and later in northern Virginia, amidst a more polite kind of segregation.
While living in Slidell, Louisiana, a neighbor asked if my family would consider housing victims of a recent hurricane. And if so, the woman asked us, would you be willing to take in African Americans? By this time, I had come to believe that there was only one race of human beings, that we were all brothers and sisters. I considered myself “colorblind” and felt annoyed that she seemed to assume I was a racist. My reaction was a perfect example of what I would later come to understand as “white fragility.”
Over and over again, my life and that of my children would be enriched by our friendships with African Americans. I remember a road trip I took with both white and black friends in the early 70s from Louisiana to a conference in Georgia. The dilapidated car in which we traveled belonged to our African American friend, Thelma. Soon after we set out, we blew a tire and were delayed for hours. At last we managed to get the tire changed. Back on the road, we soon found ourselves lost in a small Alabama town in the middle of the night. But we were in high spirits, talking and laughing, not overly concerned — until we saw lights of a police car behind us.
Thelma pulled the car over and politely asked the officer what was wrong. The officer seemed standoffish, condescending, as if he had pulled over a drunk driver. He told Thelma that she had made an illegal turn and asked us to follow him back to the police station. I was terrified. We went inside together. After long hours of questioning, he finally let us go without charges. After we got back on the road, Thelma remarked that she might as well have been wearing a head scarf and been called Aunt Jemima. We all laughed, but through sharing this experience, I came to understand that being the object of suspicion was common for people of color. I came to know and deeply appreciate the strength, the lightheartedness, and the resilience people like Thelma developed in response to this kind of unfair treatment.
After retiring, I moved back to the Mississippi coast. It had been over fifty years since I lived there. My new home in Gulfport was located in a diverse neighborhood where people of all races and ethnicities lived together. On one side of my home lived an inter-racial couple. On the other side lived a white family with a confederate flag hanging in their backyard. When I pointed out the flag — with a feeling of embarrassment — to Mozelle, a black friend who was visiting me, she said, “I always try to see a small thing like that as a bumper sticker. A person is so much more than one thing he does or says.”
Richard Ford, a writer from Mississippi, was once asked why there were so many writers in the state. He said he thought it was because Mississipians have so much to explain. I once imagined that there were places outside the South, the North for example, that stood as enlightened bastions of racial tolerance. But as I grew older, I had to admit that racism was alive throughout the country, north and south, east and west.
A few years ago, I attended a National Day for Racial Healing. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bahá’ís and members of the Krishna consciousness movement shared prayers, readings, and ideas. At the end, a young white woman named Jona Burton, stood up and invited the white people present to join an anti-racist book club. I wondered: “Why had they let this lady in the door at a racial healing event?” I listened with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Jona explained that the idea for the book club had its roots in the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an organization that had been working to combat racism for almost 40 years. It was a multiracial group that supported the idea of an anti-racism book club for white people. The organization’s motto was “undo racism” and Jona believed that that the time had come for white people to do the hard work of looking closely at the attitudes and perceptions at the root of racism. White people needed to study black history, she explained, and to read about the black experience and so work to uncover their own blind spots.
I joined the book club, and while membership has fluctuated over the years, a core group of five or six women and one man have remained. The club still meets monthly, and, at our meetings, Jona shares her passion for race work in a spirit of humility by introducing us to books that have helped our members understand the hidden and pervasive nature of racism, which grows like the tendrils of a plant that coil and curl so tightly around the stem that they seem to be part of the plant itself.
We have read a number of books by James Baldwin, one of which was made into a movie, If Beale Street Could Talk. We went to see the movie together and watched a documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, a memoir containing personal recollections about Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. The documentary traces the subtle thread of racism that runs from the past right through to the present. Today, Baldwin’s words still resonate with group members.
Most of us know the names of well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but in his book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, author and historian John Dittmer opened our eyes to hundreds of everyday heroes. Fannie Lou Hamer, a black sharecropper in Mississippi with little formal education, for one. In 1962 she set out to vote — to vote! She immediately lost her job after trying to register, then was arrested and savagely beaten while in jail. Difficulties only strengthened her determination. Doubling her efforts, she risked her life over and over again. On her tombstone in Ruleville, Mississippi are these words: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In The Other Side of Murder Creek, Bob Zellner, a white southerner whose father and grandfather were in the KKK, wrote about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. He became the first white member of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), working and serving when just out of college, under the direction of the black leadership of SNCC. Bob now lives in nearby Fairhope, Alabama, and a few of us have had the honor of talking with him on several occasions. Son of the South, a film based on his book, is due to be shown in theaters later this year.
White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo, was one of the more challenging books our group read. Diangelo explains that the people who object to racism, especially those who consider themselves progressive, may have the hardest time believing they are complicit in it. Humility, she says, is the key to the growth of awareness in this respect.
Perhaps one of the most influential books we have read is Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life by David Billings. We return again and again to the dog-eared pages of this informative, powerful book.
Recently, Jona and I had the honor of having lunch with the author, a retired white Methodist minister and his wife, Margery Freeman, at their home in McComb, Mississippi. A humble, soft-spoken man and a gifted writer, Billings believes that racism is having “its last gasp,” that the world will not allow such injustices to continue.
While Jona talked with Margery as she prepared lunch in the kitchen, I had the pleasure of chatting with Rev. Billings. I asked if he had ever met Dr. Selah, a Methodist minister I had known and admired as a young nursing student living in Jackson in the early 1960s. At a time when my faith was weak, I had been drawn to Dr. Selah’s warm, independent spirit, and I would often make my way alone to downtown Jackson to hear his sermons.
Rev. Billings went over to his sizable library of books and pulled out one title, Born of Conviction. Smiling, he opened it to a picture of Dr. Selah. He had known him. The book contained the statement Dr. Selah made to the Galway Church Board of Directors in the midst of the battle for civil rights: that no preacher or board could support a color bar in the church. Inside a large box of treasured letters and photographs, I have a small newspaper clipping with a picture of Dr. Selah. Yellowed with age, the article announced his departure from Galloway Methodist Church. After releasing his written statement, Dr. Selah had been assigned to another church in another state.
Before leaving, I asked the Rev. Billings to sign my copy of his book. He wrote, One of life’s great pleasures is making new friends when you’re 75 or older. Yes, we both were over 75; and yes, for me it was a pleasure and a privilege to become acquainted with a truth warrior like David who has long endured the wrath of those who do not share his views, but nevertheless tirelessly continues his work against racism, with the support of educational and faith-based groups throughout the country.
Attempting to unravel racism is a life-long process, and so it has been for me. A growing awareness of racism — my own and that of others — has swept over my life like an invisible wave. I now know that racial bias is deeply embedded in my culture. I have stopped trying to deny it and have made conscious efforts to transform the cultural understandings to which I have been victim. Many white friends with whom I grew up see our shared history differently; perhaps they have not felt this wave sweeping over their minds and washing away their long-held assumptions?
While I realize that wallowing in guilt serves no purpose, I also know it was that very guilt which spoke to me saying, Dive in! Learn about what you can’t see! Try to ride that wave! Sometimes I have insights — often after the fact and too late — that allow me to see that I’ve reacted to people of color with ingrained prejudice. The work of personal transformation is as much about impact as intention. It’s very hard work, this healing, but its time has come, and I continue to try to ride the wave.
Recently, a small group gathered at a friend’s home in southern Alabama to hear a talk about racism from a mixed-race couple who were known and loved by all of those in attendance. The couple had been married for over fifty years and had withstood what most of us could scarcely fathom, let alone endure. He was dark-skinned, bald, and gray-bearded, with an air of quiet nobility. She was light-skinned and graced with a beauty only enhanced by age. He spoke with gentle wisdom, from the heart. Her hand remained wrapped in his own hand throughout the presentation.
I saw a shadow of fatigue in his eyes, which he closed tightly at times in order to focus on the thoughts he was sharing. Memories of Ben flooded back — the Mason jar, his slumped back, his weariness. How do we deal with the blight of racism, a blight which has infected so many for so long? I don’t remember all they said, that remarkable couple in Alabama, but I remember thinking that these two souls who had supported and loved one another throughout a whole lifetime held the key. In them, I saw a glimpse of a different world — a just world — where love abounds and the invisible wave that carries us away from that love is gradually but steadily receding.