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Monday, April 11, 2016

Side Benefits to Practical Classes--New Friends

So, class two days ago. What did I learn? I'll get to that--
First, I want to talk about Marcia, who was sitting next to me. I can't wait to get together with her. She's writing a memoir about how, at age six, she integrated a public school. 

Now, most of us know about Rosa Parks, right? That she was tired and her feet hurt so she refused to move--that's the story we're told, anyway. Most of us don't know that Rosa Parks was a secretary for the NAACP, which meant that she drove solo around the deep south at a time when a black person driving anywhere was dangerous, only she heading out to do research lynchings and reports of rape--driving into communities already on edge, already wanting to repress those uppity N----ers who it was feared had had the temerity to call in the NAACP. 

Some of us might also have heard about Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to move from her seat on the bus, nine months before Rosa Parks. Colvin's action was spur of the moment, inspired by a paper she'd written for school the day before, about how blacks couldn't try on clothing or use the dressing rooms at the local department store. "You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot. . .and take it to the store." In her testimony, Colvin said, "I kept saying, 'He has no civil right. . . this is my constitutional right. . .you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person." 

But Colvin was a teenager, and unmarried and pregnant.  The planners thought it would be too easy to dismiss her, or worse, turn this studious little girl into a stereotype of a loose, over-sexual minority. "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did," Colvin said later. "She told me to let Rosa be the one. White people weren't going to bother Rosa. They like her." 

So it was Rosa, adult, married, quiet, respectable, whose tired feet were carefully planned, who became the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and even then, Ms. Parks had to keep quiet about her earlier courageous acts, and about her training at the extraordinary Highlander Folk School, which would have carried the taint of communism.

It's the same with the story of Ruby Bridges. Some of us might know that were three other little girls who integrated a New Orleans school at the same time, but at a different school--McDonogh--and together. Leona Tate,  Tessie Provost and Gail Etienne, they are known, for some silly reason, as the McDonogh Three. But even they, like the high schoolers at Little Rock, are only the beginning of the story.  And each story has so much value. 

For instance, although I know from photos that my mother's classroom here was integrated, I have talked to the father of a friend who integrated a local middle school in this same town. No, he and his siblings weren't bussed in. Instead, they were given city bus passes. This man described those early days when the bus stopped to let them off at school and a big white kid pulled a knife on him. Round and comfortable now, he laughs about trying to squiggle his skinny little butt past the line of people waiting to exit, but at the time, it was terrifying. He also speaks movingly of the great divide of his life, of going home with a classmate for lunch, (kids could go home for lunch in those days) only to be served a meal by his grandmother, who was working for his classmate's family as a maid. 

She pulled him aside to hiss at him that he was never to return. And she brought him home hand-me-down clothing from her jobs, many belonging to other classmates. "Hey, that's my shirt," they would say, and he would cringe inside. 

Marcia, who went on to Howard University and taught school for many years, has her own experiences to translate and absorb. She's retired now, mostly, which is giving her time to think through the days when the grownups around her decided to make her a foot soldier in the battle to change the world. I know her memoir will be so important for so many people, including the many people involved in a new movement called Black Lives Matter. I feel so fortunate to have met Marcia. We cannot wait to get together with one another. In fact, we've already set our first date. A new friend, an exciting writing buddy-- side benefit to an informative, exhausting class. 

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