The students in that inner-city school inspired me to become in a quiet way an advocate of Civil Rights. In the fifties, Rosa Parks refused to budge, two outraged white men murdered fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine stood steadfast. I’d been in college then, mostly oblivious to what was happening in the South.
During the early sixties, Mississippi racists murdered four children in a church, freedom riders headed south, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his resounding oration “I Have a Dream,” Ku Klux Klansmen dumped the dead bodies of three civil rights workers—two white and one black—into an earthen dam, police in Birmingham used fire hoses and dogs to attack protestors, and public officials halted the march to Montgomery on the Pettus Bridge. I was in the convent with its ban on reading newspapers, watching television, or listening to radio. Once again, oblivion.
This stupor continued after I left the convent. Only the assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act a week later opened my consciousness to what was happening in my country and within me. Weeks later a black man mailed a letter and I admitted my own bigotry.
The lives of the students in that inner-city school soon prompted me to change. There’s too much to tell you all that happened. Too many thoughts skittered my mind. Too much growth within my spirit. So today, I’ll simply relate two of my learning experiences. In my next posting, I’ll detail a third.
As I wrote on Saturday, none of the students had ever been inside the large department stores in downtown Dayton. I decided to take them there. I had no car, so one afternoon six of us boarded a city bus and traveled across the river to downtown. We repeated this weekly until all the students had visited the largest downtown department store.
The big highlight of the trip?
Riding an escalator.
The students had never seen one. We went up and down, up and down, until they felt comfortable stepping onto and off of that moving staircase. The store manager stood at the bottom, eyeing us suspiciously.
The students were neither rambunctious nor rowdy. No pushing or shoving, just a little joshing around. The escalators delighted the students, who giggled as they rode. They were mannerly toward other riders—most of whom, if not all, were white.
Afterward, we wandered the store aisles. Seeing the merchandise through their eyes widened mine. They nudged one another, whispering at color. Style. Cost. The store manager followed us.
One student pointed to the mannequins in the windows and throughout the store. “Nothin’ but white,” she said. For the first time in the whole of my thirty-three years I opened my eyes to the invasiveness of racism. Any black person shopping in that store saw clothing displayed only on white mannequins.
The weekly trips to the downtown department store continued. The manager finally stopped following us from floor to floor. But I saw now with those new eyes. Reading newspaper and magazines ads I found no black models. Watching television, I saw few black actors. Only on the airways did I discover the artistry of blacks as I listened to soul music produced by Motown.
A sculpture at the Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.
Thus began a campaign of letter writing. I wrote to magazines throughout the country as well as the local Dayton papers. In these letters, I encouraged the publications to use black models to attract black readers, who were also consumers. I pointed out that integration was now the law of the land. It would lead to better jobs for black workers. That, of course, would mean more to spend. I suggested that rather than drag their heels, they lead the way.
None of the publications responded, but the students knew about my letter writing and cheered me on. We spent the year cheering one another.
(Continued on Thursday . . . )
Click here to view a succinct timeline
of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
All photographs from Wikipedia.