'She Couldn't Sit in the White Seats or She'd Be Arrested' A Letter from the Kitchen Table

January 16, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

One of the 6-year-olds was explaining how this lady in Alabama had done something brave a long time ago.

"The bus driver said she couldn't sit in the white seats or she'd be arrested. But she said she was tired and she wasn't moving."

Was this Rosa Parks? I asked. She thought it was.

"Why did she have to sit in the back?" she asked.

I said people could be pretty mean to each other, then and now. In this case, I said, Mrs. Parks was asked to move because white people felt they were better than black people and pushed them to the back of the buses.

"My teacher was alive when that happened," she said.

So was I, I told her.

"Did you have friends who had to sit in the back of the bus?" she asked.

Well, I said, squirming a bit, we didn't have buses in the little town where I grew up in North Carolina. She didn't ask what I would have done if such a thing had happened to a friend of mine anywhere.

Then, I told her you didn't have to have buses to do cruel things.

But I didn't tell her I had lived in a town where restrictive covenants barred the sale of houses to blacks and Jews; where, on the golf courses, separate drinking water fountains were provided, green for blacks, white for whites. (The green fountains were for caddies and greenskeepers. Black golfers were not allowed on these courses.)

I didn't mention the colored waiting room at the train station. Or how a teacher all but cried in front of us on the day the U.S. Supreme Court said he might have to teach black kids.

All of it seemed so shameful, and yet the story was, in the end, relatively uplifting. I concentrated on Rosa Parks.

She was a person of great courage, I said. She had gotten to a point where she wasn't going to take mistreatment anymore no matter what happened to her, and she had made her stand knowing what could happen.

She was taken to jail, I said. The 6-year-old nodded. Worse things happened, I said. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

"In a motel," she said.

With the approach of Dr. King's birthday, she had been learning what Dr. King, Mrs. Parks and others had done.

Some of this history, I thought, would be incomprehensible to her. At Grace and St. Peter's School, where she and her sister are in first grade, roughly half her schoolmates are African American, half are Caucasian.

I didn't want her to know, at age 6, just how disgusting a world it had been and can be. She has to know sooner or later and probably knows a little already, but I wanted to pretend she didn't.

What she learns won't all be horrible.

Some day I will tell her about my friend Albert Murray, an authority on jazz, William Faulkner and many other things. While we both suffered in base supply, Albert Murray gave me a graduate seminar on Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain;" "Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man;" "Death In Venice" -- and life in these United States.

Change would come to the South, he predicted in 1961, not alone from the efforts of the likes of Dr. King, but when white boys and girls, witnessing the sort of indignity visited upon Rosa Parks, said to themselves, "This is wrong. This must stop."

Such existential moments -- suggested by my daughter's question -- would occur, and taken together they would be seismic. Mr. Murray, who is black, was an optimist and generous along with his other qualities.

A few years later, three civil rights workers named Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, two white and one black, were killed by Mississippi lawmen and buried in an earthen dam. Goodman and Schwerner were not southerners. And all three were asserting their moral outrage more aggressively than Mr. Murray might have thought possible.

A man of reason and civility, he might not have imagined that acts of conscience would be met with such murderous brutality, that so much courage and sacrifice would be necessary to change us as a nation.

The change is not complete, of course. But a holiday such as the one we celebrate this weekend gives us a chance to look deeply into our hearts to see if we still do believe that we shall overcome.

Change has come by steady accretion of moral forces, by individual witnesses, large and small, by gradually asserting a new reality in which evils we can recall are not thinkable.

The fountains back home are all one color now, the covenants voided, the schools opened, the hateful separate waiting room -- if not all the hate -- is gone.

People say the problems are worse today because they are less obvious, more ambiguous. Perhaps, but we should never diminish what Rosa Parks and the others did. I found myself thinking about the implications of teaching kids to live their principles, to have courage, to speak up for right -- and it frightened me.

The 6-year-old wanted to know if I knew the words to "We Shall Overcome." I said I knew two verses. She wanted me to sing them (and there in the kitchen I safely could).

"What does 'We shall not be moved' mean?" she wanted to know.

"It means," I said, "that you just aren't going to accept the bad things people are doing to you or to someone else any more, that you're going to stay where you are until people see you're right."

Then she wanted to sing and to hold hands, arms crossed there in the kitchen as if we were marching.

I am sure we always will, or should, be.

Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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