Their Only Sin – Part One

Based On Actual Events

I wipe my tears on my shirt sleeve. Emotional and exhausted; it’s time to take a break.

It takes me two trips to get all my books to the checkout desk. When the librarian offers me a tote bag, I’m so grateful I almost start crying again. “Are you okay”, she asks me, “you’ve been here since we opened.” I lie and tell her I’m fine.

Outside, everything looks different. Out of focus; my eyes can’t seem to adjust. As I’m getting in my car, it hits me. All my life, I’ve seen the world through rose-colored glasses. That filter, for me, is 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 1950s, Emmett Hill was murdered, Montgomery busses were boycotted, and the Supreme Court ruled on school integration. In 1963, the year I was born, George Wallace blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama, 250,000 people marched on Washington, and a Birmingham church bombing killed four little girls. 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. First, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregation and discrimination illegal. Then, the Voting Act, which 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 know that, all around me, history was being made. The images below are from the funeral procession for Martin Luther King. Over 100,000 people, including politicians, public servants, and celebrities from the worlds of arts, entertainment, and sports, gathered to pay their respects to the slain leader. After two mules pulled the simple farm wagon carrying his body down the Atlanta streets, Dr. King was laid to rest only 18 miles from where I lived.

Funeral Procession for MLK – 100,000 People, 4 Miles Long

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I was too young to listen to Walter Cronkite report on these stories as they unfolded. But, surely I learned about these milestone events in school, right? Wrong. At the time I graduated, if someone would have asked me what I knew about African American history, my answer would’ve gone something like this:

A long time ago, black people were owned as slaves by white people. They also weren’t allowed to use the same restrooms or drink out of the same water fountains as white people. This was called segregation. A man named Martin Luther King fought for black people to have equal rights. He made a famous speech that had something to do with a dream and then was assassinated. The end.

I was considered one of the smart kids, with above-average grades. But, after twelve years of school, that was the extent of my knowledge about black history. I had to have known there was more to the story. But, to be honest, I was probably too self-absorbed to care.

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Thinking I read it wrong, I check the TV guide again. It does say based on actual events; but, that doesn’t make sense. By the time it’s over, I’m even more confused.

I toss and turn. With all these questions going through my head, sleep will be impossible. And, that’s why I’m in the library parking lot early the next morning; waiting on the door to open.

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I used to think segregation happened (and ended) at the same time as slavery. I was in my 30s when I learned that it was still legal and being practiced in the south at the time I was born. I was blown away; both by the information and the fact that I was just now finding it out. I felt an urgent need to educate myself. But, I was living in the pre-internet world, and research required effort. The library became my new hangout. I spent hours upon hours poring over old newspapers on microfilm. Books were stacked all over my studio apartment. And, I sought out movies and documentaries that covered this part of history.

It wasn’t easy. I was learning things I didn’t want to know. Discovering the extent of injustice suffered by black people broke my heart, and guilt consumed me. I’ve been asked how I could feel guilty about something I didn’t do. My answer. I am white, and I am from the south. How could I not?

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I’m a different person, and at first, it’s hard to adjust. I’m uncomfortable around my black friends and customers. I feel like I owe them an apology; I’m just too embarrassed to bring it up. My white friends are no help. When I try to explain how I’m feeling, they act like it’s a joke.

I swallowed my pride and asked a close friend for advice. His one question, “Is the change in you genuine?” 100%. That’s all the matters, was his reply. Everything else will fall in place.

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Social media has shown me that, when it comes to our country’s racist past, many white people only think in terms of pre-civil war years. But, racism didn’t end when slavery was abolished. Another 100 years would pass before black people obtained civil rights. Think about that. For an entire century, post-slavery, there were no restrictions on what white people could do to prevent a black person from achieving success. And, we took full advantage of that power, nowhere more so than here in the south.

Those 100 years weren’t part of the curriculum when I went to school. Learning about them on my own, however, taught me so much more than what would’ve been covered on a test. It allowed me to see things from a different perspective and imparted some of the most valuable lessons of my life.

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I’ll share two stories that had a huge impact on me in:

Part 2 – Boxes in Basements & Part 3 – Help Wanted (White)

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