Their Only Sin

I wipe my tears on my shirt sleeve; too exhausted to suppress my emotions. Time for a break. I gather my things and get ready to go.

It takes two trips to get all my books to the checkout desk. Seeing my struggle, the librarian offers me a complimentary tote bag. I appreciate her kindness; but I’m hoarse and can barely croak out my thanks.  “Are you okay”, she asks,”you’ve been here since we opened”. I tell her I’m fine. We both know that’s a lie.

Even though it’s cloudy, my eyes won’t adjust to being outside. I can’t figure out exactly why; everything just looks different, a little off. Then, it dawns on me. I’ve always seen the world through rose colored glasses. That filter, however, I’ve now lost.

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I entered this world during one of the most pivotal times in this country’s history, the civil rights era. In the late 1950’s, Emmett Hill was murdered, Montgomery busses were boycotted, and the Supreme Court ruled that schools would be intergrated. In 1963, the year I was born, George Wallace blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama, 250,000 people marched on Washington, and four little girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing. And, shortly before the year ended, on November 22nd, US President John F. Kennedy, who’d made civil rights a top priority, died after an assassin’s bullet struck him in the head.

The next couple of years brought change. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act, made segregation and discrimination illegal. Then, the Voting Act, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote was signed into law on August 6, 1965, my 2nd birthday. These new rules weren’t without opposition. The Atlanta Pickwick Trials, Freedom Summer, and the March on Selma were among the events brought on by the southern states’ unwillingness to conform.  The ultimate act of resistance came on April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King, a key figure in the fight for civil rights, lost his life to an assassin’s bullet, just as JFK had less than five years before. 

Growing up in a northern suburb of Atlanta put me in the middle of the civil rights movement geographically as well. While the nation’s eyes were focused on the south, my world revolved around Batman and Barbies. I was much too young to be aware of or understand that, all around me, history was being made. Images from Dr. King’s funeral procession show over 100,000 people, including politicians, diplomats, musicians, movie stars, and professional athletes, gathered together to pay their respects to the slain leader. It’s hard to believe this took place less than 20 miles from where I lived.

MLK Funeral Procession, Atlanta

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By the time I graduated high school, I’d learned a little about African American history. Keyword being little. I knew about slavery – but only that it occurred, none of the details. As for segregation, I understood that it involved separate bathrooms, water fountains, etc., but I was way off on the timeline. And, if asked, I would’ve told you that MLK was a man who fought for equal rights for black people, made a famous speech that had something to do with a dream, and got killed. And, that’s it – the extent of my knowledge. Surely I realized there was more to the story. But, to be honest, I was probably too self-absorbed to care.

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After a busy weekend at work, my day off plans included my couch and my TV. I just wanted a chill night at home. And, it did start out that way. Then, I started watching a “based on the true story” movie…

Nothing about the film made sense; it left me with so many questions. Until I figured things out, no way would I be able to sleep. And, that’s how I ended up at the library the next morning, waiting on them to unlock the door.

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Segregation was legal, and still being practiced in the south, when I was born. I didn’t find that out until I was in my 30’s. I was shocked, both by the information and that I hadn’t known it before. I felt an urgent need to educate myself. But, I was living in the pre-internet world when research required effort. The library became my new hangout. I spent hours upon hours pouring over old newspapers on microfilm. Books were stacked all over my tiny studio apartment. And, I sought out every movie and documentary I could find about covering that time period.

It wasn’t easy. I was finding out things I didn’t want to know. Discovering the extent of injustice suffered by black people broke my heart. And, the guilt was gut wrenching. I’ve been asked how I could be remorseful over behavior I didn’t participate in. I am white and I am from the south, how could I not?

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I’m a different person; and I don’t know where I fit in anymore. I try to tell my white friends what I’ve learned, but they aren’t interested. They either blow me off or make a joke. It’s frustrating.

With my black friends, coworkers, and customers, there’s an awkwardness that wasn’t there before. I want to hear their perspective; I want to apologize. But, I don’t know how to start the discussion. Or, even if I should.

A heart-to-heart with a close friend brought clarity. I didn’t need to make a formal declaration or force a dialogue. The awareness I’d gained would be there when I needed it and the conversations would happen naturally. He was right. I continued to grow, and my new mindset became a part of who I am. I had a new way of thinking, and it changed my life.

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When it comes to the history of racism, many people only think in terms of the pre-civil war years. Because that was so long ago, they have a hard time seeing how it can still be relevant today. But, bigotry did not end when slavery was abolished. While I would never try to downplay the horrifics of enslavement, the Jim Crow era weighs most heavily on my southern mind. Because it was still going on in my lifetime, it’s easy for me to imagine the roles being reversed. And, I can recognize the ways those years can still affect life today.

I offer the following two examples:

My mother was part of the “Class of ’57”. She still has her yearbooks, graduation program, and even her report cards from her years at West Fulton High. It’s fun to look at the momentos and get a glimpse of her teenage years.

1957 was also the year that nine black students, who excelled in academics and attendance, were chosen to integrate Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the first nationally covered civil rights story, there is an abundance of written and photographic documentation of these students’ experience. I want to share the story behind one of the most famous photos.

Arrangements were made for two local ministers to accompany the black students on their first day. They hoped to avoid trouble by arriving as a group. One girl, however, failed to get the message about these plans.

Elizabeth Eckford was alone when she stepped off the city bus across the street from her new school. As she made her way down the sidewalk, an angry group of protestors began shouting racial slurs at her. Up ahead, she saw the National Guard in formation across the length of the building. Believing they were there for her safety gave her the confidence to keep walking.

She’d watched the troops step aside to let students past their line, but when she approached, they held their position. She tried another entrance. Again, they didn’t move. That’s when she realized these armed soldiers weren’t there to protect her, but to block and prevent her from entering the campus. As she turned to go back to the bus stop, the mob fell in behind her. Following on her heels, they screamed, threatened, and spit on the teenager as she tried to escape back to the bus.

Filled with fury, the throng of angry white ADULTS made this the target of their hate. She was only 14 years old.

I look at the photo and imagine my mother’s teenage face in Ms. Eckford’s place. Had she been born black, this could be her story. These could be the keepsakes I found in a old box in our basement.

(This was only the beginning of the torment these students would have to endure. The story is much too involved to recount here, but can be easily found by searching “Little Rock Nine”. )

The Little Rock nine didn’t accept the offer to attend Central High to start trouble. They didn’t have a hidden agenda. And, they did nothing to provoke the rage directed at them. Their only objective; an education. Their only sin; the color of their skin.

After almost 30 years of service, my grandfather retired from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department around the time I started school. Because of his job, he was able to buy a home, make investments, and put some money aside for my mom, sister, and me. He wasn’t rich, nor are we. We are, however, fortunate to have a safety net to help us when we really need it. It already has, and continues to, make a world of difference in our lives.

Atlants’s first black policemen.

When my grandfather began his career, law enforcemement was a “white only” job. Black men couldn’t apply. That changed in 1948, when eight men became Atlanta’s first black policemen. This was progress, but not as much as you may think.

The black officers weren’t permitted to drive a squad car; they patrolled on foot. After white officers refused to work out of the same building as their new colleagues, the basement of a YMCA gym became the “black precinct”. Black cops only had authority over other black people. They weren’t allowed to ticket or arrest a white person even if they witnessed a crime in progress. Threats and harrassment from their white coworkers became part of the job for the recruits as well.

In 1962, Atlanta PD finally allowed their black officers jurisdiction over white law breakers. Black and white cops did not start working side by side until 1969.

Law enforcement wasn’t the only field closed to black job seekers. After WWII, many black soldiers returned home as trained mechanics, electricians, and welders only to find these skilled, better paying vocations were still only open to white men. After fighting for their country, they were still considered second class citizens and had to settle for the same menial, low wage occupations they’d held before the war.

Below are actual classified ads taken from the Atlanta Journal. The first image shows how, prior to 1964, the “colored” employment ads were separate. There would be 1-2 pages full of “help wanted” ads for white applicants, and maybe 10-20 total job possibilities if you were “colored”. When the Civil Rights Act made discrimination illegal, many employers still specified “WHITE” in their ads. (Image 2). I found these kind of ads in the AJC as late as 1970.

The career opportunity available to my grandfather continues to benefit my family today – almost 70 years and three generations later. How can we say that opportunities DENIED have no relevance anymore? Slavery ended in 1865. But, it would take another 100 years before our country would legally recognize black people as equals. We, as white people, spent so much time doing everything we could to prevent a black person from achieving success. And, it will take more than one or two generations to overcome that suppression.

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Social media has shown me how many people are unfamiliar with stories like the ones mentioned above. We now have a world of information at our fingertips. All you need is a desire to learn.

Educating myself about the civil rights era was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. It was a turning point in my life. It made me a better person and taught me some invaluable life lessons. Skeptical? Try it for yourself. What have you got to lose?

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I add this as an afterthought. Writing this has made me think about all the people in my life whose skin color is different than my own. Valued friendships. Cherished memories. My life has been richer because of the love I have for them and the love they have for me. I pause now, to say a prayer of gratitude for each and every one.


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