It was a very different time. And even though I drive over the same streets, and see the same buildings, it’s hard to believe it was the same place.
Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 simply wasn’t a good place to be black. I was only 10, but there were things I didn’t understand. Not that I questioned them at that time, but it registered that something wasn’t quite right. The water fountains at the zoo were labeled “White” and “Black” (maybe “Colored” – I can’t remember). The bus station had separate waiting areas for whites and blacks. Those restaurants that admitted blacks had a separate room for them, and the accommodations were certainly not equal.
And there were incidents – grown men squirting mustard and ketchup on a black boy simply because he sat at a lunch counter. Humiliating him. Fire hoses and police dogs. Policemen beating unarmed people to the ground with billy clubs. And then there were the three people in Philadelphia. Philadelphia wasn’t far from the towns where my grandparents lived. What had happened to those three men?
As a white child in Mississippi, you only saw fragments of these things, and the inclination was to somehow just make them fit into a way of living that was just the way things were. Not right or wrong, just there. The only thing I really wondered about was, why the separate water fountains at the zoo? I think, more than anything else, those water fountains made me question the status quo.
Somehow, in the face of what I now know were incredible dangers, in the face of a society that was prepared to kill to make sure black people accepted their status as second- or third-class citizens – not citizens, really, inhabitants – somehow, there were men and women who reached deep down, overcame their fears, and stood up to challenge that society. They did this knowing that they weren’t just endangering themselves. They were placing their friends, their neighbors, their children, in mortal danger.
For many whites believed that the law would never challenge them for things they did to suppress the blacks who did stand up, to knock them back down in a way that would send the message to other blacks – “Don’t do that again!”. And for so long, they were correct.
Yet in the face of this, there were blacks (and whites) who did challenge the Way Of Life. I’m not sure, today, that we can truly understand just how amazingly brave these people had to be, the deep-seated, blinding terror that they had to stifle time after time. I just know that we owe them a debt that can never be repaid.