Fifty years ago, after a two year court battle, the University of Georgia was integrated by two students, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton “Hamp” Earl Holmes.
It made national news and I might have seen it on TV but don’t remember. At age eight watching the news was a peripheral event. More likely I was reading a Nancy Drew mystery while waiting for dinner. It is possible I listened to the story because of my friend, Vickie. This was around the time I first heard the word “nigger”. I didn’t know why it had made Vickie cry. My father explained. But it took years to learn about the vileness of that word and what it symbolized. My father believed in civil rights but thought Dr. King and others were pushing too hard. Most whites weren’t ready yet. A few years later I challenged him on that. But not then. At eight I still believed he was always right.
My husband’s family may have watched the news that night. He doesn’t remember either. But even at eleven years old this wasn’t a story in the background for him. It was discussed and debated at home, school, and church. Some agreed with my father, that folks were pushing too hard. But the concern wasn’t with white sensibilities. It was understanding the danger. Fear this could lead to retaliation. Cautioning the young who were becoming bold without considering repercussions. Questioning. Would you let your son or daughter do this? Could you stop them? Should you?
I remember not understanding why white people were so upset. And at some point hearing the word “mongrelization”. My neighbor, who was older and seemed to know so much more than me about everything, explained “they” didn’t want white and black people to marry and have children. If we all went to school together that was going to happen. I thought about Richard and Ralph and laughed. I didn’t like either one of them enough to marry. But ten years later I met a young black man in college. And liked him more than well enough.
Before I met my husband, there were televised marches and protests and a national tragedy. The morning after Dr. King was assassinated my high school was in turmoil. School buses did not pick up students in the black section of town so they walked three miles to school and sang Gospels and civil rights songs. A radio station reported the students were marching in the middle of the street shouting African War Chants. Some white parents arrived at school to pick up their children. Rumors spread through the halls that the black students were armed with knives and spears (spears???) and were coming to take revenge for Dr King’s murder. White girls were hiding in the bathroom crying. People had lost their minds.
Over the next few months there was anger, and mistrust and fear in our town and in the nation. Some thought this proved King’s non-violent philosophy a failure. Stronger tactics were necessary. And some celebrated the “failure”. It was a sad and confusing time.
I had a friend who was a Franciscan in the Catholic Church. Brother Benedict and I became acquainted during the ecumenical movement and had long talks about faith and disillusionment and racism. He was black and shared his struggles and at times despair. Brother Benne had been transferred to Chicago and offered to show me around the city if I ever made it there. That spring I was in Chicago with my high school band and called him. We had one day to sight-see. Brother Benne said there was a special place he wanted to take me. He warned it was a religious temple and said if I ever got over my problem with God, I might like this Faith. “They believe we are all one race and they are serious.” The Baha’i House of Worship was enormous and impressive and unforgettable. Etched inside the sanctuary dome were some of the Writings of the prophet founder, Baha’u'llah. There was one I memorized immediately. “Ye Are the Fruits of One Tree and the Leaves of One Branch”.
It’s been forty years since I first met my husband at a Baha’i meeting and we’re still together. So I will concede the racist’s fear had merit. When whites and blacks mingled together love could happen. It’s a natural response between human beings. But they were wrong to worry about the children being mongrels. The children are fine.
This morning I heard on the news the University of Georgia is celebrating this historic event for the next fifty days. Fifty days of civil rights commemorations. It brought unexpected and quick tears. I wonder if news anchor Walter Cronkite knew when he reported this story that in another fifty years the University would honor the day. It’s possible “the most trusted man in America” had that kind of foresight. But if he did, he knew better than to say it out loud. He would have been declared a mad man.
Story by Sharon Nesbit-Davis from Mimetalker’s Blog