I’d never seen signs like this before. “Colored Entrance” “Whites Only” Rest Rooms and drinking fountains with arrows for “Whites” and “Colored.” These signs appeared at our rest stops more frequently as we moved further south. About 30 of us were traveling by chartered bus from Boston to North Carolina for a week-long conference. We couldn’t ignore the signs; they applied to our ragtag, multiracial group of teenagers.
I was sixteen and committed to the passage of civil rights. Idealistic. Naive. Most of us had never been south before. We were outraged at the signs and vowed to give them none of our business. If we couldn’t all eat together we wouldn’t eat.
Boston wasn’t the most liberal of places. Earlier that spring my mother told the folks at her hairdresser’s that our family would be hosting some kids overnight for a weekend church conference. Someone asked what she would do if one of the kids assigned to us was a negro? Mother had never thought about it but answered Make them feel at home. Sure enough, Wally, one of the two boys assigned to us, was black. The spare room had a double bed which Mother had expected two girls would share. Now we had two adolescent boys – one black and one white, Mother was initially freaked. Boys didn’t share beds. The boys didn’t care. And if there were repercussions from parents or neighbors, I never heard about them.
The summer conference was at a Quaker school, Guilford College, in Greensboro, NC. Guilford had voluntarily integrated the campus the year before -- 1962, They might have been the only southern college that would host our multiracial group and shared our commitment to civil rights. They had helped us arrange a day of service with the local black hospital. Our work crews spent the day cleaning, painting, and fixing things. Somehow, I always ended up on the paint crew.
I felt like we were trying to make a silk purse from the proverbial sow’s ear. The hospital was old and the patients poor. It was depressing and overcrowded. Our one day of work was a drop in the bucket, but this trip south was teaching me about life.
Most of us planned to spend our second week in Washington DC. Word about the March on Washington was spreading. I was excited about exploring the Smithsonian, the zoo, the pawn shops and streets of the city. But most of all, I was excited by the March on Washington taking shape on Wednesday.
The city had a magic about it. People were arriving from everywhere by bus, train, hitchhiking, walking, driving. Everyone was friendly and interested in where you were from and why you came.
I like to pretend that when you look at that picture of the reflecting pool and the mall filled with people, you can see me. I’m right there on the left side, not far from the water, sitting with some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
The day was hot, the program long, the sky perfectly blue. Every celebrity and politician was introduced and it seemed like there were hundreds of them. Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary broke up the speeches. ‘We shall overcome’ echoed throughout the city.
August 29, 2013