“Charles, we are signed up to work the polls election day,” my mom would say. One of my childhood memories is that my mother and my father always made working the polls a priority. At the time, I did not truly understand their commitment to perform this civic duty. I did not understand that this was more than just a civic duty. I later understood that they had experienced a time when they could not vote. They both lived through a time in our American history when they witnessed the poll taxes and other methods used to prevent Black Americans from participating in the democratic process. My parents were faces in the crowd during the Civil Rights Movement birthed in Montgomery, Alabama. They were rooted in the process that led to the integration of public facilities and transportation in this country. Additionally, they were a part of the march from Selma to Montgomery that eventually led to legislation that gave them and others the right to vote in elections in this country.
I have been looking forward to the movie “Selma” since I learned it would be on the big screen. Last weekend, I set the DVR to record the Sunday night line up on the OWN network. Then, we sat down as a family and watched two hours of Oprah presenting the history of my home state. We listened intently as she introduced the actors who would usher us into the movement that served as a catalyst to the passage of the voting rights act. The personal accounts shared by the actors and director increased our anticipation for the day the movie was to be shown in theaters in our town.
I was born in Montgomery, Alabama about two years after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace prize and about two years prior to his assassination. As a child, my parents often reminisced about their encounters with racism in this country, but more specifically about their lives in Alabama before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. There were many nights at the dinner table when they would tell me about school integration, the bus boycott, and the march from Selma to Montgomery.
I thought it was really cool that my mother was an active participant in the bus boycott in Montgomery. She received her first traffic citation for a moving violation during the time of the bus boycott. She said that the boycott was successful because ordinary people like her decided to use their cars to offer rides to “folks who were headed in the same direction.” She said that the Black community created “bus stops” so that those who needed rides would have places to wait for drivers who were willing to drive them near their destinations, if not all the way to the destination. My mom’s beauty shop was one of the new “bus stops.” Apparently, when the city officials learned of this new “bus stop,” they erected a “No U-Turn” sign over night in order to prevent drivers from making the u-turn to pick up people in need of a ride who were choosing not to use the city bus system. My mother was one of the first ticketed for making a u-turn at a place where she had routinely made u-turns. My parents were proud that their sacrifice and unified efforts resulted in change for many. The history books used in my schools covered the civil rights movement in a few pages predominately covered in pictures of Dr. King and the groups of people who gathered to hear him speak. The school textbooks did not acknowledge the strategic plan that led from one focus to the next in an effort to “Let freedom ring” for all disenfranchised people in the country. After the bus boycott, came the march from Selma to Montgomery.
My parents also told me about the night the marchers arrived in Montgomery in route from Selma. At that time, my family home was in a neighborhood called Mobile Heights which was behind George Washington Carver High School on Fairview Avenue. This public high school for Black students was across the street from The City of St. Jude which included a Catholic school, a Catholic church, and a Catholic hospital. Like me, many of the Black kids I knew were born at St. Jude hospital. The St. Jude city welcomed Black people into the school and the church also. So, it was not surprising that the rally held for the marchers was held there. Mama said that the day the marchers got to Montgomery there was rain. According to my mother, she was excited about the opportunity to take a stand for a cause and against the racist behaviors, laws, and attitudes that kept Black folks suppressed. My mother was a quite woman who chose her words carefully. She was a prim and proper kind of woman who dressed to go to the store and ate her pound cake on a plate. So, it was really a big deal for her to stand in the rain and mud and dirty her shoes for a cause. That was a statement within itself. I often wonder what happened to those muddy shoes that she placed in the attic of the small house we lived in when she got home from the march.
My father loved music and entertainment so he made certain to tell me about all of the celebrities who came to Montgomery to show their support for the movement. He always mentioned Harry Belefonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. My father also made sure that he told me, “Your brother carried the Alabama state flag in the march with Dr. King.” I envisioned my brother on the front line of the march formation with the flag hoisted high, singing freedom songs walking beside Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. After I got grown and had children of my own, I was asked to speak at a Dr. King breakfast at my kids’ school. I decided to share the stories my family lived. So, I asked my brother about his Selma to Montgomery experience and I learned that my imagined experience was not exactly my brother’s reality. Ha!
My brother said that the marchers spent the night at The City of St. Jude right across the street from his high school. He told me that from his classroom he and his classmates watched as the marcher organized to continue their journey to the Alabama state capital in downtown Montgomery. My brother recalled that the administrators at George Washington Carver High School advised the students to remain in the building. The administrators told the students that parents had been assured that the students would remain in the school and not be in harms way. Well, my brother said that as the marchers left St. Jude and began marching toward downtown he and other students made a decision to defy the administrators and join the march. On his way out of the school, he took the Alabama state flag from the entryway of the school. He said the coolest memory he had of the march was watching some people come out of businesses and others leave their cars parked on the side of the road in order to join the march as the marchers passed by them.
Sometimes people wonder why I get really agitated by injustice and find a need to speak about injustices that often seem to be none of my business. Well, I find that we are often products of our environments. I grew up in a house with people who sacrificed not only for themselves, but for generations of people to come. I lived with proud folks who taught in segregated schools and were strategically placed by the Autauga County School Board to help integrate schools in rural Alabama while receiving threats from the klan for being figures of authority in the newly integrated public schools. My family was not written about in history books or made the subjects of any documentaries or movies. However, their service, sacrifice, and labor made a difference. Their contributions to the movement were critical to the realization of Dr. King’s dream and the dreams of many who followed, including me.
I salute my parents, Lola and Charles, and my brother for their commitment to the cause of civil rights. I thank them for sharing their stories with me and allowing me to see the strength and the voices that are a part of my lineage. I appreciate their willingness to stand in the face of danger and uncertainty in order to raise awareness about some of the challenges of being a Black American. Because of their actions, the president, the courts, and the congress heard them and acted to protect the rights of Americans who experienced oppression as a result of laws founded in racism, hate, and fear. To paraphrase a statement by Common, a musical artist, my family members and those who stood with them “awakened [the] humanity” in this country and around the world. I am forever grateful and proud. That is my #Selma.