Hey, I’m Black Too! So, Where Do I Fit In?

By Storyteller Mama Edie McLoud Armstrong

Story Summary

Because she had grown up in a predominately white community during the turbulent Civil Rights years, when Mama Edie’s new friend, Renee, went to college she learned the pain of being treated as an outsider by some of the other African American students.  But Mama Edie and Renee both learned that a strong sense of identity can combat bullying, provide a sense of direction and belonging and create meaningful bonds that can last a lifetime.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Hey Im Black Too So Where Do I Fit In

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever been in a situation where people made you feel that you were unwelcomed and that you didn’t belong? Describe the situation.  How did it make you feel?  How did you respond to it?  Did anyone stand by your right to be there?  If so, who?  Did you continue your friendship?
  2. Have you ever been a “pioneer,” the “only one” or one of only a few like you in a situation, in your neighborhood or school? If so, what was the situation and describe what it was like.
  3. Are you comfortable in the skin you’re in? Are you proud to be a part of your cultural group?  If so, why?  If not, why not?
  4. Have you ever had the opportunity to stand up for someone who was being bullied or treated unfairly? Did you?  How do you feel about your decision and what was the end result?  Looking back now, might you have responded differently?

Resources:

  • African American Wisdom Edited by Reginald McKnight. Famous proverbs and anonymous quotes by African Americans from the time of Reconstruction through the 1990’s to inspire courage, pride, self-love, a strong work ethic, discretion and a thirst for knowledge.
  • The Importance of Pot Liquor by Jackie Torrence. Especially useful for children (and adults) who did not grow up in typical African American communities and may have missed out on some of the cultural wisdom and humor that has helped this culture to survive in especially trying times.
  • Brown Girl in the Ring: An Anthology of Song Games from the Eastern Caribbean Collected by Alan Lomax, J.D. Elder & Bess Lomax Hawes. A celebration of Afro-Caribbeans through songs and games that serve to keep African Descendant cultures connected, proud and alive.
  • The Life & Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar Collected by Lida Keck Wiggins. Poems written in African American Dialect and Standard English that demonstrate the creative skill required of African Americans not formally educated to bring feelings and images to life using blended linguistic influences of various cultures.

Themes:

  • African Americans/African
  • Bullying
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neighborhoods, Identity
  • Stereotypes/Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Mama Edie McLoud Armstrong. Going away to college in the 60s was so exciting. So much was going on. There were all kinds of things: political ideas, and spiritual ideas, many ideas to explore, new ideas to explore, but also old realities to reckon with.

For example, as a child growing up in a racially changing neighborhood, every now and then I didn’t feel quite like I quite fit in. And sometimes it was very difficult. Even sometimes the way the teachers would pit the black children against the white children. Ah, I mean, there was nothing that was spoken, but you felt this favoritism being shared towards the white children, which made us feel kind of bad. And I was seven years old or so, you’re not quite understanding what’s going on. All you know is that it just doesn’t feel good.

And the same kind of thing happened in high school. But even sometimes as the white children were leaving the neighborhoods, then they started pitting the lighter complexioned children against the darker complexioned children so that the lighter complexioned children got favoritism, which caused a rift and a problem. And sometimes even the lighter complexioned children were beaten up and called words like “high yella,” which made them feel bad. And all they wanted to do also was to just fit in.

Well, in high school, sometimes there were specific things that would happen that just let us know that some of the teachers were just not happy that we were there. And they seemed determined to put blocks in our way.

For example, having a session of guidance, a counseling session with my guidance counselor in high school, she suggested that, um, I not consider college because she didn’t think I’d make it there. So, she suggested that I try secretarial school. Well, I went on and I got accepted into Northern Illinois University anyway.

But even while there, in another guidance counseling session, the director of my program at that time told me that speech pathology, audiology were really not fields for black people but I was a nice person, and then I might want to consider social work. Now social work is a noble profession, and, in fact, I had considered it at one time but it wasn’t what I had selected then. I went on and got my Master’s Degree in Speech Pathology anyhow. Sure wish I coulda come back and found both of those teachers, show ’em my diploma, my degrees. But it was an interesting time too, in that I was starting to meet children who were coming from places I had never heard of. I guess I thought that most black people in America lived in cities like Chicago, and Detroit, and L.A., and down south. Then I started hearin’ about places like Rock Island and Cairo. Well, I had actually heard about Cairo because clearly the Welcome Wagon was not rolled out for children of African descent in cities like Cairo. And, in fact, cities like Cairo were those places, uh, uh, that we called, sometimes “up south”
because of the attitudes that were still there.

But meeting some of the students from those places helped me to understand, as I was learning more about the great migration, that African-Americans ended up in all kinds of places: west, and to the north, and cities large and small. Now the great migration was a period that took place roughly between 1914 and the 1970s. And what had happened, you know, (as the kids say what happened was) the European American immigrants were being sent to war. And with the rapidly building industry, there was still a need for people to fill those positions for cheap labor. And so African-Americans were typically not welcome in the military services. So, the opportunity was there. So, they came in droves from all over the south, all over the slave south trying to escape situations like, uh, the Jim Crow laws. Those laws that kept us separate… that had us in separate schools, and separate swimming pools and, and unable to even attend theaters where we might perform.

And it was a difficult time, even once they arrived up in the north, and tryin’ to find some place to live was also challenging because many people in cities like Chicago, and, especially, in Chicago, only wanted to welcome in people who we would normally call white Anglo-Saxons. Now that was a problem for African-Americans. There was nothin’ about most of them that resembled the white Anglo-Saxons. However, in an interesting way, those very, very light-complexioned African-Americans who managed to purchase property in certain areas because they passed or looked like they could pass, actually opened the way, opened the door for others to move into some of those communities. And what a surprise that was when these little brown complexioned people started showing up in the neighborhood.

But there was a policy called redlining that was intended to keep children of African descent, and other minorities as well, from being able to purchase property in certain areas. And so, it was decided in 1990… in 1966 that there would be a march in a neighborhood of, on the South Side of Chicago called Marquette Park. And I remember that day, um, and it was really an amazing situation. Um, and… but many things happened as a result of the march in Marquette Park that opened up doors, opened up the doors of the universities as well as the neighborhoods.

So, enter my friend Renee. Now, Renee was a person who had been born in Chicago. But at the age of nine, her father had gotten transferred to another city, one of those cities I had never heard of, but she was the first African-American in her elementary and high school. Pioneering, definitely! And so, uh, understandably, she learned to speak like her white contemporaries. Uh, she even moved and, and danced like them. But when it was time for her to come into college, she was so excited because she had many good friends among her Euro-American counterparts in her town. However, she was hungry for interactions with children of African descent. So, she was so excited about going to Northern, and meeting, and mixing, and mingling with these kids.

But here she comes. “Hi. My name is Renee. What’s yours?”

Well, people were kinda looking at her like, “So what’s with her?”

And so, it’s easy to assume that she was what we would sometimes call a “wanna be,” somebody who would prefer to be white. And that just wasn’t the case. She was, when I first met her, she was warm and bubbly. And she was friendly, and she was very smart, but that even became a problem because sometimes we’d be in class, and she was sometimes a little bit too eager to be the first one to answer. “Oh, well, that’s because such and such, and, and what have you.”

And so, some of the other students would look at her like, “Okay, so now not only is she a “wanna be,” but now she’s a Miss Know-It-All too!”

Poor Renee. Her popularity was taking a serious nose dive. Well, one particular day, we were having a meal together, which we often did. And you have to consider the timing. In 1969 when I went away to school, this was the time when we had just lost people like Dr. Martin Luther King, John and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. Um, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party were brutally shot in their beds as they slept on the West Side of Chicago under the inspiration of J. Edgar Hoover by 14 Chicago police officers. So, there was a lot of anger at that time. So, the idea of a black girl comin’ along lookin’ like she’d rather be a white girl was not going to get any points. So, here we are, Renee and I sitting there at the dining, in the dining hall of the dormitory, and we were just about to finish our meal. Now I had noticed some other African-American students a little bit in the distance at a table beyond Renee, but she couldn’t see them because they were to
her back. But I saw them with their heads together, whispering, and talking, and pointing, and gesturing, and I was like, “Oh, Lord. Here comes trouble.”

So, I was hoping that they wouldn’t say anything. But just as we were about to leave, they got up, and they came over. And without even looking at her, they looked directly at me, and they said, “Whachoo doin’ witheh? She thank she white. She don even know she black. You know, I, I don even know, understa… understand… why you talkin’ to her?”

And I was just about to respond. But Renee in her very direct and confident way, she stood up and she said, “I do so know that I am black. You just don’t know that I am black. And Edie is still here because she’s my friend, and I could be your friend too. But it’s your loss.” And then she said, “Come on, Edie.”

Ha, ha, ha! And so, it’s like, okay, she took care of that. So, ha, ha, so I got up and I was about to leave, and they looked at me, and they said, “So, so, what’s so… why are you with her?”

And I say, “Like she said, we’re friends, and she’s a nice girl. So, if you would prefer not to look into that and to see her as the person that she is, that is your loss. So, um, I’ll see you all later.”

Now I was pretty well liked, and what have you, among many circles on the campus. So, we didn’t have any problems. So, I walked away ca… uh, Renee and I walked away, but she was fuming. We went back to the dorm, and I managed to kind of decompress her. And we talked about the situation, but then we went on, and prepared to go to the dance at the University Union that night. And when we did, we had a good time. And I watched her doin’ her little white girl dance, eh, heh, which was really just kinda comical to me, but she was a sweet girl.

She continues to be a sweet girl. And, in fact, she moved away to a state far away, but she came back to Chicago to be in my wedding. And 40 years later, we’re still friends.

My Chinese Grandfather

by Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki

Story Summary

As a child, Brenda visits her Grandfather who collects, dries and sells seaweed along the coast of California. When she is older, she helps him with his work. Brenda finds his ways strange and the work hard, but the two find unique ways of talking and enjoying each other’s company.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My Chinese Grandfather

Discussion Questions:

  1. What service did Brenda’s Grandfather provide? Why do you think he lived the simple life he did?
  2. Do you have any relatives whose language, cultural customs or ways of making a living are very different from yours?
  3. Do you have any relatives you wish you had spent more time with? If you had an extra few days with them right now, what would you ask them? How would you want to spend your time with them?

Resources:

  • Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience by Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic
  • Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present by Judy Yung and Gordon H. Chang
  • Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pflaezer
  • The Chinese in America: From Gold Mountain to the New Millenium edited by Susie Lan Casel You can read an excerpt from the book and on page 161, you can see a photo of Brenda (the teen with the glasses), her younger sister, her aunts and her Grandmother with her Grandpa, George Lum, drying seaweed. There is a picture of How Long on page 163. In the actual book, on page 167, the little boys in the photo are Brenda’s uncles. Excerpt and photos at: http://bit.ly/SeaweedGatherers

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I’m Brenda Wong Aoki. And when I was a little girl, I used to wish that I could trade in my grandpa because I felt like I got cheated ’cause I know what grandpas were supposed to look like. You know they have, like, white hair and twinkly eyes and you go to their house for, like, Thanksgiving or Christmas or something. Except my grandpa wasn’t like that. My grandpa didn’t have any hair, and he didn’t even have a house. So, I, I, ss… he was Chinese. But now that I’m older, I wish that I spent less time thinking about trading in grandpa, and more time getting to know him.

My grandpa lived in an old, tin roof shack. It was built out of tar paper and pieces of wood he’d just find on the beach. He had no electricity, no running water. He never really learned English, and his strange gruff ways used to scare me.

I can remember my first trip to Grandpa’s was 1959. I was six years old. We were in our old Chevy station wagon, and along the way I saw a sign that said, “How Wong” ’cause I just learned how to read. How Wong. That confused me. But my mother explained that How Wong was Grandpa’s best friend. They had come together from Canton, China when they were only 18 years old.

And then I saw a dwarf, right out of Snow White. It was Grumpy. No, it was Grandpa. Inside his shack, he had frogs big as my head, living in his sink and they were ribbiting. (Ribbit! Ribbit!) My mother gave me some flowers to give to Grandpa, a bouquet of flowers. He wouldn’t take it (giggle). “Moano zhu tou! Zhu tou! Stupid bamboo head!”

It turns out, bamboo head, that’s what you call ABCs. American-born Chinese, because we’re hard on the outside and hollow in the inside and Grandpa thought I must be a stupid ABC if I didn’t know that cut flowers are an omen of death. He thought I was trying to kill him or somethin. That summer, that night, Grandpa laid down blankets on bales of seaweed and blew out the kerosene lamp (whooo). We are at the edge of the ocean. There are no streetlights. Nothing. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. And I didn’t remember seeing a bathroom. Mom hands me a metal pail. “What’s this for?”

“You know.”

“You mean?”

“Um huh! We call it a thunder bucket.”

When we left, our car was covered with pigeon droppings like icing on a cake. I had never seen anything like it. And that’s what I remember from my first trip to Grandpa’s. And after that, we would return to Grandpa’s every summer, and help him gather seaweed ’cause this is how Grandpa made a living. He would gather seaweed, spread ’em out to dry. Then later on, cut ’em into little pieces, put ’em in packages and sell ’em to Chinatowns throughout California, and even over to China.

When I was 16 years old, we returned to Grandpa’s. This time the sign said, “How Wong is the Chinaman.”

My mother explained, “Somebody must have written that because they were being racist.”

That summer I found myself wearing men’s galoshes, Grandpa’s overalls and this big coolie hat. I looked totally f.o.b. (fresh off the boat). And after they left me at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, whatever time the tide was low, his little green flashlight leading the way, we climbed down the cliffs on these little steps my grandpa had hewn out of the rock. Now I was slippin’ and sliding trying to keep up with Grandpa’s short, stocky legs. He was just like buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, and down. And I was hangin on for dear life. When we finally get down to the bottom, there was tidepools but tidepools like you can’t see anymore. Tidepools that were like jewels with pink and green sea anemones, orange starfish, little baby crabs,
golden fish, eh, gorgeous! But there was no time to look.

Grandpa would say, “Fai Dee! Fai Dee! Hurry up!”

Oh, the tide would not wait. So, twist and pull and throw in the basket. We gathered seaweed. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. Not the green one, not the brown one, just the black one for sushi. That kind. Twist and pull and throw in the basket, twist and pull and throw in the basket. This was terrible on my fingernails! Twist and pull and throw in the basket. This was not the way I was supposed to spend my summer. I have a new, brand-new bikini with white polka dots. And I was supposed to be on the beach, listening to the Beach Boys with my transistor radio instead of here with him. And he can’t even understand English. Twist and pull and throw in the basket! Twist and pull and…

“Watch waves.”
“What are you talking about? Watch waves.”

“Watch waves!”

Ah! This was really dangerous work. There’s no lifeguards out here. Ah, huh! When we were done, the beach was covered with all these big baskets full of wet seaweed. My grandpa would take this big pole and he’d put the baskets on either side, and he’d just climb up the cliffs. Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Buh, buh, buh, buh! Uuh! Buh, buh, buh! Uuh! Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Uuh! They must have weighed about 200 pounds easy, those two wet baskets. And when he was finished, I was up there spreading ’em out, spreading ’em out, spreading ’em out ’til we had, like, I dunno… seemed to me like a football field full of thick seaweed. Then when we’re finished, Grandpa would go into the shed, into his shack. He’d light a fire in the stove. (Shhhh!) Shoo the frogs out the sink. “Go now. Go. Go!” and they’d hop away.

He’d take a great big wok and make dinner. (Shh, hhh, hhh!) Sometimes on special occasions, Grandpa would bring out a Chinese delicacy, pickled chicken feet. Little toenails clicking, he’d walk them across the table towards me. Eeheeheeheeh! He loved to do that. Heh, heh, heh, heh! After supper, Grandpa would take 180 proof Chinese whiskey, pour it in a teacup, and in another, he’d pour me tea.

He’d say, “This fo’ me. This fo’ company!”

He’d light a big stogy, (ooh, whoo), look me in the eye and say, “Ooh, whoo, ah, Blenda! Blenda! How’s skoo?”

Brenda, how’s school? That was Grampa’s favorite American line. You see, in Chinese, words take on different meanings if you change the intonation. So, my grandpa would change his tones and think he was saying a whole bunch of American words. Our conversation used to sound something like this.

“Ah, Blenda! How’s skoo?”

“Grandpa, tidepools are cool.”

“Ah, Blenda! How’s skoo?”

“Tomorrow can we take a day off?”

“Blenda! How’s skoo?”

We used to talk like that for hours. At the end of the summer, Grandpa poured gasoline on the rocks and torched them. I remember standing with him watching the flames burning on the waves. He said that was so the old seaweed could die and the new seaweed could grow.

When my parents picked me up, I gave my grandpa a big kiss on his bald head, right between his big, floppy ears (smooch). And he said to me, “You go now! Go! Go!”

And he stood there all alone in the cow pasture with his little green flashlight. And that beam never wavered until we’d gone all the way up the mountain and dropped over the crest.

My grandpa died when I was in college, and we buried him up near San… up near San Francisco in the Chinese cemetery. Cem… cemeteries were all segregated. And the Chinese cemetery is right behind Home Depot, so I can always find it. Everybody put cut flowers on his grave, but I remembered and brought a small green plant that still had its roots.

Recently, my Uncle Victor passed away, and I found out that my grandpa was one of the last seaweed gatherers off the coast of California. This was a community that had been there for 100 years. They’d escaped the purging of the Chinatowns when Chinatowns throughout California were burned down. And fleeing Chinese were shot or lynched or put on barges and left out in the open sea without water or food. Grandpa and a bunch of men and their families, they, they gathered seaweed quietly on the coast. And they were respected because they weren’t in competition for the ranch hands, uh, jobs or anything. They also had money. They were merchants. They sold to China; they sold to Chinatown.

And I interviewed one of the ranch hands, and she said that my grandpa had saved them during the Depression. She said, “We were starving. The ranch hands were starving but your grandpa came with baskets, and he brought us Chinese food. It was the first time I’ve ever had Chinese food.”

And I thought, “Chinese food and baskets.”

She said she’d never had fish or crab before in her life until grandpa came and saved them during the Depression. So, my grandpa was a well-respected merchant. Georgie Wong, the Chinaman.

Sagebrush Santa: Christmas, 1942 in the Minidoka Internment Camp

by Storyteller Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

Five-year-old Kiyoshi, tries his best to make sense of his world which has been turned upside down since Japan attacked a place called Pearl Harbor. Since his father was taken away, he has had to leave his home, and spend the summer in a horse stall in the big city of Portland, Oregon. He has gone on his first train ride ever and has ended up near Twin Falls, Idaho in a place called Minidoka. It is Christmas Eve, 1942 and Santa will be coming soon.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Sagebrush Santa-Christmas, 1942 in the Minidoka Internment Camp

Discussion Questions:

  1. You are sent to a remote location with no access to stores, schools, or libraries.  You are away from most of your friends and are forced to stay in one place.  There is no cell phone service, internet connection, and electricity is unreliable.  What would you do to keep from being bored?
  2. Suppose that everyone in your class who wore the color purple on a particular day are told to go stand in one part of the room and everyone else are to stand in another part of the room.  You are now told that those in the purple group are bad and are not to be trusted.  Your best friend is in the purple group.  How do you feel?
  3. Under what circumstances does the Government have the right to put people in jail without trial as they are suspected or have the potential of doing something wrong?
  4. Christmas is coming and you have no money to buy gifts nor are there stores nearby, and mail delivery is unreliable.  Yet you want to give presents to your family.  You have access to wood, paper, string, paint, rocks, glue, some desert plants, sand, some tools, and lots of time.  What gifts would you make for your family?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. A few years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Minidoka Relocation Center near Hu… Twin Falls, Idaho along with other members of the Japanese-American community from Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. That’s an annual event that happens about every June. And it includes a tour of the site as well as side trips to the local attractions and the sharing of memories and personal experiences. I listened to the stories of these people who were children incarcerated in the camp. I asked a lot of questions and did more research. And I wrote this story about what it would be like to be a child far away from home, the first Christmas in a place called Minidoka.

The morning rains had turned the paths and roads into muddy swamps. By evening, the mud was covered over with a blanket of snow that softened the outlines of the towers and the buildings. The snow just glistened and glittered in the moonlight and to five-year-old Kiyoshi, he thought that this was… made the perfect Christmas picture.

In the high desert of southern Idaho, in the winter of 1942, Kiyoshi sat in the wi… Mess Hall of Block 7 squirming with anticipation. His older brother and older sister went off with their friends and his mother, his Okasan, was in the, in the barracks resting ’cause she had been doing laundry all day. But it was Christmas Eve and Santa Claus was coming.

Now, about a year ago, there was an attack in a place called Pearl Harbor. And shortly after that, these men in suits and the, and this big car came and took Kiyoshi’s father, his Otosan, away. That made Kiyoshi and his whole family very sad. And that’s when a cold, empty space opened up in Kiyoshi’s stomach. He missed his Otosan; he missed his father, the way that he would tousle his hair and call him Kiyoshi-chan, or little Kiyoshi.

Then came these things called curfew, which made people scurry around after the sun went down. And then there were these things called blackouts in which everything went dark.

But the thing that his mother feared the most was this thing called evacuation. When that came, Kiyoshi’s mom and his older brother and older sister, they packed whatever they could in the suitcases. They moved out of their house and into a horse stall at the Exposition Center in the big city of Portland, Oregon. Aw, it was hot and stinky and, aw, just horrible in this horse stall. Kiyoshi couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t go home. And then came the day when people gave them little pop… paper tags with the same number on it.

The whole family had to wear this little paper tag. And they were herded out of the horse stalls and onto a train guarded by these big soldiers with big guns. They went on this train over the mountains where they were herded out of the trains and onto buses. And they’re taken to their new home of wood and tarpaper shacks and dust. This’s the first time Kiyoshi had ever been on a train. It’s the first time he’d ever been out of the state of Oregon. It was also the first time he’d ever seen a barbed wire fence.

When they first arrived in Minidoka, there was no heat in the barracks. They’re only cold-water showers. The dust just kinda blew in through cracks around the windows and doors and through the walls. And the outside toilets were freezing cold, and often Kiyoshi would be woken in the middle of the night by the fussing of the baby at the far end unit of the barracks. At least now, they had hot water, and Kiyoshi could make it from the showers to his unit in the barracks without icicles forming in his hair.

As Christmas approached, Kiyoshi began to worry and he asked his Osakan, his mother, “Uh, will Santa be able to get a pass to get through the front gate? Do you think Santa will be able to make it through the small chimney of the stove in our, in our unit? Do you think the guards will shoot the reindeer if they get too close to the fence?”

His mother said that she didn’t know but she was pretty sure the guards wouldn’t do anything to hurt Santa Claus. And then Tommy, Kiyoshi’s best friend who was seven, who knew everything, said, “Ah, no, Santa Claus and reindeer, they’re magical! They can go anywhere.”

Kiyoshi watched the snowflakes drift past the window outside and got excited all over again. He looked into the mess hall and there he could see that the, the wait staff and the cooks dressed in their finest. They just served a beautiful turkey dinner. And someone had, had painted the nativity scene on one of the walls and the whole room was decorated in crepe paper streamers and tin can stars. Someone even brought in a, a sagebrush and decorated it with tinfoil and, and cotton ball snow – a Christmas tree. There was even a Christmas wreath made of wood shavings, and Christmas carols were playing very softly on a small radio. You see, in camp, you didn’t celebrate Christmas just with your family but with all the families of your block.

And, suddenly, then the door slammed open and someone began shouting. Kiyoshi immediately thought of the men who had come to take his Otosan away, his father. He dove under the table, clapped his hands over his ears, and shut his eyes. He didn’t see that the man who was coming in was dressed in a red suit, had a long, red hat, and a white beard. What he saw were the men in the suits taking his Otosan away while he’s dressed in his pajamas. He didn’t hear the man shout out, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” What he heard was his mother weeping.

All the other children gathered around Santa Claus as he sat down his sack and began handing out presents. Then, suddenly, someone touched Kiyoshi on his shoulder. It was his best friend, Tommy, “Kiyoshi, there you are! Santa Claus is here and he brought presents!”

Kiyoshi climbed out from under the table, saw this man dressed in this rumpled, red suit and a cotton ball beard who was gesturing to him. “Aw, Kiyoshi-chan, aw, aw, I’ve got a present for you!”
“A present? For me?”

“Aw, Reverend Townsend and Shigeko Uno had written letters to all these churches across the United States telling them about the situation here in camp and I have presents for all the children here in Minidoka. And I picked this one out just for you.”

And he handed Kiyoshi this oddly-shaped object dressed… wrapped in brilliant red paper and green ribbons.

“And, I, I know it’s hard with your Otosan, your father, away. But Kiyoshi-chan, do you know this Japanese word, gaman? It means to bear, to carry on, to not complain. We must adjust to the new situation. We must prove to everyone else that we are Americans first, ne? Wakade mas ka? Do you understand?”

“Hai! Wakade mas. I understand.”

“Aw, very good. Aw, now, I must go and deliver presents to all the other children in all the other mess halls. Now remember, gaman, Merry Christmas!”

And he was gone. Kiyoshi looked down at his present; he wasn’t forgotten. Santa remembered. Santa still cared. And he began to unwrap his present as all the other children, all the people in the mess hall began filing out ’cause the camp choir was singing Christmas carols outside in the snow.

And what emerged from the wrapping paper was this toy wooden truck. And Kiyoshi felt his chest tightened. It reminded him of that old truck that his father used to carry groceries from their farm into the markets in Portland. That small, cold, empty space in Kiyoshi’s stomach opened up and threatened to swallow him down.

Gaman. How could he carry on? He was just a little boy. He missed his father. He just wanted to go home. Tears began rolling down his cheeks. And he didn’t hear the door open up behind him while the footsteps approaching him.

“That is a beautiful truck you have there, Kiyoshi-chan.”

Kiyoshi turned around and looked at this man, gray hair, glasses. Who was this man? He didn’t recognize him until he reached out and tousled his hair. “Otosan! Father!”

And suddenly he was in his father’s arms smelling his smell. Aw, and that cold, empty spot just melted away and was replaced with this glowing warmth that make his whole body tingle.

“Father, how? When?”

“Aw, they let me go, Kiyoshi-chan so I could be here with all of you. Come! Let’s go outside and, and listen to the choir!”

So, hand-in-hand, they went outside but Kiyoshi couldn’t see so his father picked him up, put him up on his shoulders, and Kiyoshi balanced there with one hand on his father’s hat and one around his new toy truck. These three Army flatbed trucks have been pulled up in a “U” and the camp choir was standing on the trucks being led by Mae Hara, who the camp… the choir director. She had a baton with a little light on the end of it and she was leading them in Christmas carols.

And to five-year-old Kiyoshi balancing there his father’s shoulders, he knew that he could carry any weight, bear any burden. Gaman. To him, it was the best Christmas ever.

That’s What My People Do: Facing Prejudice in a 1960s High School

by Eunice Jarrett

Story Summary

High school students organizing a memorial service for a teacher trigger an emotional process for Eunice who is asked to step out of her comfort zone, again.  Family life and school life create race-related expectations.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Thats-What-My-People-Do-Facing-Prejudice-in-a-1960s-High-School

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did expectations based on race shape the students’ behavior at Eunice’s school?
  2. Can you name talents or skills that are reflected in Eunice’s family? What about your family? What gifts do you see in yourself and your relatives?
  3. What is the impact of constantly hearing stereotypes – positive or negative – about you and groups to which you belong?
  4. In this story, what makes a simple request to sing seem so troubling?

Resources:

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (Three graphic novels)
A Raisin in the Sun a play by Lorraine Hansberry
Article in Northwest Indiana’s newspaper about Eunice’s sister, Annie Hicks, who was the first black teacher in Hammond, Indiana –
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/hammond/hammond-s-first-black-teacher-speaks-of-need-for-tenacity/article_b902bcf1-db00-5d20-9589-52674ba792de.html
Facts about school integration in the U.S. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_integration_in_the_United_States

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Eunice Jarrett and my story starts in the 1960s, in Indiana.

The complexion of our high school was changing and the black parents encouraged their kids to stand up and be a credit to our race. So, I became our high school student government’s token Negro. One of our teachers had died suddenly, and the student government people were asked to organize a memorial service.

And I remember the service going kind of like this. We had a meeting and I remember the meeting going something like this. Max was the president and he decided that he would preside over the meeting.

Rose really liked the old teacher. And so, she said that she would give the highlights of the teacher’s life. Chris was a poet and he volunteered to tell the poem. Huh, and Tom, Tom decided that he should say the closing prayer.

And then they decided, “Well, what, what should Eunice do?”

Tom said, “Let her sing. Isn’t that what her people do?”

Like I wasn’t in the room. I mean, I was right there. Why would they say for me to sing? They never heard me sing. Ohh! Sing and dance. That’s what they think my people do. Huh. Well, they didn’t know. They didn’t know that letting me sing might break that stereotype. Letting me sing, I might bring my whole race down from that high pillar of musical expectation. But I’d sing, because that’s what my people do.

You see, my sister Annie, she stepped up and she went to teachers’ college, graduated with honors, only to be told that this color of her skin disqualified her from teaching in her own hometown. Huh. She won that federal court case and the superintendent of schools who said, “Over my dead body,” he died. And my sister became the first Negro teacher in our whole school city. She inspired other people, and that’s what my people do.

Fred didn’t know, Fred didn’t know that I knew some real singers. I mean, my mother and my sisters, they could really sing. My mother, she fancied herself to be a soprano Marian Anderson. Hmm. When she got to sing on Sundays, she had her own gospel arias. But she would always tell us the story of that magnificent Negro woman who sang opera all across the United States and all around the world. Then she told the story of the Daughters of the American Revolution who wouldn’t let her sing at their event in Constitution Hall, in front of an integrated audience. Because Marian Anderson was a Negro. Hmm.

Mama said, “What the devil means for bad, God will use it for good.” Mama said, “Mrs. Roosevelt fixed it. Instead of Constitution Hall, Marian Anderson got to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a beautiful Easter morning, in front of thousands and thousands of people. I can still feel the pride of Mama’s voice when she told that story.

Yes. Daughters of the American Revolution. Yes, that organization. They were the same daughters, they gave out awards to eighth graders for citizenship and leadership. And when I graduated eighth grade in 1966, I was the winner of that award.

Our principal and faculty, they voted for me. But when they found out who I was, they turned my name into the DAR. And when they found out who I was, they refused to give me the award because it was supposed to be given to a white student.

Well, our white principal said, “We voted for her. And if you don’t give it to her, we won’t give your award ever again!”

I still have that award somewhere in a box. Can you imagine how I felt standing there to receive an award that I knew they didn’t want to give me? But I stood there and I was gracious, because that’s what my people do.

Well, while Rose was writing my name, I wondered, “Should I get Mama or my sisters to sing?”

Well, the student government kids didn’t know that when I went to choir rehearsal, my sisters got the best singing parts, they got the leads. And the rest of us, we had to clap and rock in the background. The student government kids didn’t know I had a hard time clappin’ and rockin’ at the same time.

But I think I’ll sing, even though once a lady at choir rehearsal whispered very loudly that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. So just to make her a liar, I practiced finding my tone, and I put it in my imaginary bucket.

Well, you know, I agreed to sing not because I’m the best singer, but we stand up. And sometimes we have to stand up to people who don’t know it was enough to not like us.

You know, they say that when one black family moves into a block, it breaks the block. Well, when my family moved, we broke the block. And the boy next door made it his job to stand at our fence and call us names, every day. And we had to walk past him, hold our head up high, and ignore him every day, until the day he came into the fence, ready to fight girls in their own backyard. Well, my middle sister got in trouble for fighting back. But you know, sometimes we just get tired, sometimes we really do. Huh.

Well, all I had to do was sing a song. I just had to pick a song. “Let My People Go?” Uh, that was a little sarcastic. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?” That was probably the only spiritual that some of my classmates knew. But I was a Negro and we had spirituals. That’s what my people do.

Well, it was the day of the program. I remember the shuffling feet, letting down the wooden auditorium chairs, the hushed whispers. The student government officers, we entered stage left and there were chairs, wooden chairs and an arc behind the podium. Yes, hhh, I remember.

Max went to the podium, and he, in his most eloquent words, explained the reason for the assembly and we started the assembly. He introduced Rose, and Rose had done her… She’d done her research. I didn’t know that I… that teacher had gone to Tibet and knew how to ski. But I was not surprised that she taught a lot of the parents, and she had a cat.

Well, next Chris went up to read his poem. I don’t know what he said because I knew I was next. Then Max went back to the podium, and he said words and more words and I was looking for my invisible bucket. But then Max turned and smiled at me.

So, I stood up. And I walked to the podium. And I looked out on the darkness, and I did what my people do.

Stand Up! Redlining During the Great Migration and Marching in Marquette Park with Dr. Martin Luther King

by Storyteller Mama Edie McLoud Armstrong

Story Summary:

Take the journey with 14-year old Mama Edie as she relives her 1966 experience of marching through the violent streets of Marquette Park in Chicago, Illinois with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Ride the back of the train “up north” in the “Negro section” during the Great Migration from the slave south in search of a better life to only find the practices of “redlining” and Jim Crow blocking your way to a better life for your family.  NOW take a serious look at someone who would tell you to “just get over it.”  How do you heal?

50 years later, Mama Edie was in Marquette Park again to commemorate the original march!

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Stand-Up-Redlining-During-the-Great-Migration-and-Marching-in-Marquette-Park-with-Dr-Martin-Luther-King

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the “Great Migration”? What were its benefits and its dangers?
  2. Discuss the differences between people who immigrate to another country in relative comfort with their own names, belongings, family members, languages, religions and freedom to practice their own cultural ways and those who immigrate by force in deplorable conditions, stripped of clothing, dignity, names, respect, family, land, religion, language and where the practice of one’s cultural ways may even be punishable by death. How might people’s lives evolve over many generations depending upon their first step away from home?
  3. Why was the march held in Marquette Park in 1966 with Dr. King significant and did it only benefit African Americans? Was its impact felt only in Chicago?
  4. Imagine how you think you might feel if you had been a Black person who was not allowed to buy housing in many parts of Chicago? What impact would it have had to be told where you and your family could and couldn’t live?
  5. Imagine how you think you might have felt as a White person on those streets of Marquette Park. Write a short essay about it. What were whites fighting for or against? What kind of information did they have or not have? Describe what happened while you were there, what you saw, what you heard and how it made you feel. Address how it makes you feel now about yourself, your own culture and about African Americans and their lives today, whether you are African American or not.
  6. How does a person become open and sensitive enough to understand someone else’s feelings or situation? What makes a person care enough to let go of ego, judgment and fear and want to listen and learn?
  7. When you see injustice, when is it time to stand up? Consider one scenario of injustice and describe how you might go about addressing it. How can you safely affect a positive change?

Resources:

Article on The Great Migration and its socio-political and economic evolution from 1916 to 1970: http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration

IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Network), a collaboration of intercultural and interfaith groups who have worked together to improve the quality of life for people in the Marquette Park Community.  This organization spearheaded the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Marquette Park march: http://www.mlkmemorialchicago.org/

Redlining – This link guides the reader to a digitally interactive map describing the existence and “reasons” for redlining, the discriminatory practice of limiting housing opportunities and related services for so-called minorities across the country.
http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/19/498536077/interactive-redlining-map-zooms-in-on-americas-history-of-discrimination

Themes:

  • African Americans/Africans
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neigborhoods
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Edie McLoud Armstrong. It was August 5th, 1966 that I was 15 years old. I remember waking up feeling so excited. I was joyful, a little bit scared, and brave, all at the same time. I’d never felt quite that way before. I remember, as I was eating my breakfast, I was deep in my own thoughts. And my father had made me this wonderful breakfast of bacon and eggs, and toast, and fresh, squeezed orange juice. But as I was eating, I kept replaying in my mind the newscasts that my parents and I had been watching over the previous days and weeks, that were leading up to this very special time. You see, there was going to be a march in Marquette Park, one of the neighborhoods on the southwest side of Chicago. And this was one of the areas where they used the practice of redlining, which was intended to keep African-Americans and other, so-called minorities from the housing market.

Well, this was going to be a bit of a problem because this was also right in through with the time of the Great Migration. And the Great Migration took place roughly between 1914 and the 1970s. And this was a time when waves of African-Americans were coming from the slave south. They were trying to escape situations like the lynchings. Those Sunday afternoon, after church, kind of lynchings, where men, women, and even children sometimes were hung from trees. They were trying to escape church and home bombings. They were trying to escape the Jim Crow laws that barred them from restaurants, restrooms, from playgrounds, and swimming pools, and churches, and in movie theaters, and play theaters, where even they performed but they weren’t allowed to go and enjoy them. They were coming to northern cities and western cities, both big and small, in search for a better life. But it was difficult.

For one thing, they needed to find someplace to live. So, when they came to a city, for example, like Chicago, and many of them actually managed to get enough money to ride the train in the colored section, or the negro section, which was actually right behind the engine. Now, that might sound kind of exciting but in that section, that’s where the soot and the ash came. So, you got these people dressed in their Sunday finest. And they had to sit in an area where they knew that they would probably just have their wonderful clothes all dirtied up but they didn’t care about that. And they had their lunches packed in shoe boxes and brown paper sacks, sometimes even including a loving piece of homemade pound cake. They were on their way to find a better life.

But, again, they needed somewhere to live. Now, in cities like Chicago, there were many neighborhoods where people only wanted as neighbors, people who looked like them. So, when the African-Americans were coming in droves, I mean they were really coming, there was so many that they ended up crowding into areas that were getting quickly overcrowded. And the services, the landowners, were no longer providing the services to maintain the hygiene and the safety that they once did. Even the trash, the trash wasn’t getting picked up on a regular basis. And so, the communities ended up turning into what we now call slums.

Now, it was an easy thing to try to blame the residents for the conditions that were allowed to take place. But churches, like Quinn Chapel, were very, very instrumental in helping the African-Americans find someplace to live. They found them little tenement places and sometimes they were able to rent a room or they got little kitchenettes, until they could find a place of their own and send for their families to join them. So, there was a lot of support there. And that was a good thing because in other communities, for example, in Marquette Park where that march was going to take place, that was a neighborhood where African-Americans only went through in order to get to Midway Airport. Because it was very clear that we were not local there.

Hmm. So, the day came. The day of the march. And Dr. Martin Luther King had been invited to Chicago to lead that march. Now, some of the nuns from my elementary school in Inglewood, St. Carthage, had asked some of our parents if they could escort us to that march. That was kind of a risky thing for a parent, especially my father, who was from Georgia, who knew about what life could be like. But they prayed on it and they decided to let me go. And I’m really, really glad they did because I felt like it was my turn to stand up for justice. And I wanted so much to do that and to do a good job.

Well, what happened was that, that morning after I finished eating, I went to my mother’s room to say goodbye and she started asking me all the practical things. She looked at me and she said, “Now, now, did you, did you pack your lunch?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Did you get your jacket because you know it’s going to be a little bit chilly out there later on?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now, did your father give you a little piece change?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

And she was just asking me all these questions. But then she said, “Now, Edith, stay alert and make sure you stay right close to the nuns and to your other friends. And make sure that you don’t look in their faces. Don’t look in their eyes. They don’t like that because they’ll think that you’re challenging them.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I had never heard that before. And so, my father even though St. Carthage was only like two blocks away, he insisted on driving me to school that day. He talked quietly with the nuns off to the side for a while and then when it was time for him to go to the car, he turned and he looked at me. And he came and gave me a big hug.

And he just gave me a quiet smile that said, ‘I’m proud of you, girl.” It didn’t even need any words. And so, he got in his car and he was gone.

And within minutes, we were on this specially chartered bus. They were maybe about 20 of us. And while we were going along, we were kind of chatting and, and, and joking even a little bit, trying to break the tension because we were nervous. We didn’t really know what to expect. None of us had ever had an experience like this before. But then, as we got closer to where the march was taking place, we started hearing the crowd. The noise of the crowd, the voices were getting louder and louder. And we heard these angry shouts and these chats. And we looked out the windows and we saw people throwing their fists up into the air. And we could just imagine what was coming out of their mouths. And suddenly, we weren’t real sure if we actually wanted to get off that bus.

But then we knew we did because it was our turn. Our ancestors had marched. They had died. They had struggled for hundreds of years. It was just our turn. So finally, it was time to get off the bus. And as we were moving towards the street where the marchers were, I suddenly felt like I was in an old movie where we were being led to the Lion’s Den, with these throngs of angry people on both sides of us surrounding us. I searched the crowds on both sides and there were no kind faces there.

And as we continued to walk down the street, I remember there was one particular woman who came up to me. A mother. She was shorter than I was and she began to curse me right up in my face. And then her young son who looked to be maybe about nine years old, he came up and started cursing me too. I had never even heard a little boy curse like that before.

I’d never looked into the face of hate. I saw it that day and it was ugly and it hurt. But I was frozen stiff. I was so shocked with the way I was being accosted. I just stood there and so finally, one of the nuns came to get me. She got my hand and she guided me. I don’t even remember which nun it was but it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let go of that hand. And as we made our way to the rest of our friends and to the other nuns, we continued to move forward. And, and I still heard the jeering crowds but all of a sudden, the intensity of that jeering, of their sounds, began to become a little bit muted. Because suddenly, I started hearing the san… song of the marchers up in the front. And the sound was getting louder and louder. And they were singing the song, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome. Someday.”

And I feel that somehow, through the music, we did overcome. There was a lot that we’ve overcome. There’s a lot that we have yet to overcome but we on our way. I cannot give up hope on this country. I will not accept that this country is hopelessly adolescent, and le… and bigoted. That there is no chance for us to heal. That healing is already taking place. And in fact, there was a celebration on August 5th, 2016 that honored the 50th celebration, the 50th anniversary of that march in 1966, again, in Marquette Park and I was there.

I had been invited as a special guest along with other people who had also been there 50 years ago. And when I went over there, I can still feel some of that hate floating in the air. Wasn’t as intense this time but I could feel it. It was, it was like a ghost that didn’t want to go away. A spirit that didn’t want to rest. It’s still there but is starting to dissipate.

And I’m grateful for that. And this time, a very special treat was that I was able to march this time with my sister storyteller, and friend, Susan O’Halloran, who is the producer of these videos. Now 50 years ago, Susan was 15 too. (Sue, I hope you don’t mind me telling your age, girl.) But anyway, she wouldn’t have been able to march with me at that time because she lived in one of those red lining neighborhoods. So, her parents wouldn’t have allowed it. But now here we were.

I called her up and said, “Girl, you would not believe what’s happening. You got to be there.” And so, the organizers of the march, they contacted her, and we were able to march side by side. There were poets and songs and speeches by people like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Jackie Collins, who I went to St. Carthage with. There was Rabbi Capers Funny. There was Brother Rami Nashashibi, who’s the executive director of the IMAN, which is the Inner-city Muslim Action Network that spearheaded this great celebration. This was an intercultural, interfaith collaboration of people who knew, that we had it in us, to make this country live up to what it purports to be, what it promises to be. That we’re here to require that it fulfill the commitment of truly being the land of the free and the home of the brave. And I’m just grateful I was there.

Three Assassinations: Kennedy, King, Kennedy

by Storyteller Megan Hicks

 

Story Summary:

 Megan was confused when her 9th grade classmates reacted differently to the assassination of President Kennedy than her family did. She didn’t know who was right. And then she learned to listen to what her heart told her was truth for her.

For print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Three-Assassinations-Kennedy-King-Kennedy

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you ever wondered how you’re “supposed” to feel about a situation that makes you uncomfortable?
  2.  How can you be friends with someone you disagree with?
  3.  What’s the difference between an argument and a debate?
  4.  What happens when you realize you no longer believe some of the assumptions you grew up with?

Resources:

  • The President Has Been Shot!: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James F. Swanson
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 

Themes:

  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Megan Hicks.

It was a Friday morning, in late November, in 1963. I was in my second period algebra class. We heard the loud speaker in the ceiling crackling and the vice principal’s voice came through. He said, “Teachers, students.”  We all figured it was gonna be an announcement about the pep rally or the activity bus for the game that night. Instead, he said, “We’ve just received word that the president has been shot. President Kennedy has been shot and he is dead. Extra-curricular activities cancelled, school is dismissed early. Please take your regular assigned buses home.”

Well, I sat there on the bus on the way home that day, I was looking out the window, looking down at my lap, wondering how I was supposed to feel about all this. And all around me, kids were crying, boys and girls, volubly. I, I, wondered…They acted as though it were a family relative who had just been killed. I mean, I knew a terrible thing had happened but I didn’t know President Kennedy personally. It’s not like his death affected me. These kids, the way they were carrying on, you know, it just seemed kind of phony to me, except that 9th graders, especially boys, don’t cry in public. And I thought it was really strange. I realized all these kids came from families that their parents had probably voted for Kennedy for president.

My parents hated Kennedy. They voted for Richard Nixon. I remember, that 1960 campaign. I was 10 years old; my mom and dad took me with them. They knocked on doors, they distributed year signs, bumper stickers, they made phone calls. That election was so close, they held out hope until the very last votes were counted. But, when all was said and done, it wasn’t Richard Nixon. No, it was the rich kid from Harvard, the papist, who talked funny, who went to the White House.

Now, my mom and dad, like Richard Nixon, had both grown up in humble circumstances. We were living in Orange County, California at the time but both my parents had grown up during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, where Jim Crow laws were strictly observed and enforced. That “separate but equal” approach to race relations, to my parents’ way of thinking, had been working just fine all along. And then along comes this East Coast intellectual, this John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Bringing in Federal government to integrate Southern schools, Southern buses, Southern affairs that were none of his business. I sat there on the bus that November day, and I thought, “Well, he went and got himself assassinated.” And I guess that’s a terrible thing. But it all washed over us pretty quickly. Thanksgiving was just around the corner and then Christmas and by the time we rang in the New Year, everybody was accustomed to the idea of President Lyndon Johnson.

Now, my mom and dad hated Johnson too. I mean, he went right on with Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act, plowing through, with, with movements and, and legislation. And my parents were just sure it was the end of life in America as we knew it. I mean, it was an almost a weekly occurrence now. We saw race riots, we saw protest demonstrations, sit-ins; not firsthand because we lived in a good neighborhood. And, you know, I went to an all-white high school but all you had to do is turn on the TV. And my parents said, “See there, there’s proof this country is going to hell in a handbasket. What do those people want? That Martin Luther King and all those black power agitators. I mean, they’re just whipping them into a frenzy. King needs to go back where he belongs. They would go back where they belong and then we could get some peace around here. Somebody needs to shut that man up.”

And in April 1968, somebody did shut him up, permanently. My next-door neighbor was almost beside herself with excitement. She said, “Isn’t this just exactly what I said was gonna happen, huh? Haven’t I said that he has been asking for it for years? He got no better than he deserves, as far as I’m concerned.”

My mom allowed us how it was really terrible that things had come to this pass. She said, “Well, no. He won’t be giving any more speeches but you know, the real tragedy is that now the is a martyr.”

My dad watched the six o’clock news with satisfaction, “Ah, there’s another troublemaker out of the way.  Pay attention, Megan,” he said. “This is what happens when you stand up, you rock the boat, you make yourself a target. Martin Luther King brought this on himself. I hope you understand that.” I didn’t understand anything.

You know, by the time of Dr. King’s murder, 1968, I was a freshman in college. A very sheltered freshman living in a household where all the answers had been determined long before I was even born. I was going to a college where there didn’t seem to be any answers, just more questions. In my home, a disagreement meant somebody left the conversation angry. In my college classes, we were encouraged to disagree, to debate, to argue, to, to consider things from different perspectives that sometimes change our minds. You know, all I wanted was for somebody to tell me what I needed to know to pass the tests. I thought, “I can’t sort this out now. I’ve got papers to write. I’ve got finals coming up. It’s not as if I’m old enough to even vote yet, anyway.  So, what difference does it make? All this controversy, it makes me uncomfortable. It’s distracting. I‘m not gonna think about it.”

And I didn’t until June when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. I knew what my parents thought of Robert Kennedy, not much. He was just like his big brother, John – only worse. Only more the advocate for this Civil Rights Movement, more the champion of these political agitators who, to my parents’ way of thinking, were running America into the ground. And it looked like, until the bullet brought him down, he was on his way to the White House too. I heard about it driving to my sociology class. It was on the radio news. The announcer said, “Senator Kennedy had just won the California Democratic presidential primary and was on his way out of the convention hall.  He has been shot and killed.” The announcer said, “Today has been declared a national day of mourning. People who want to honor the work and the life of Senator Kennedy are encouraged to drive with their headlamps on as a sign of respect.”

I honestly didn’t know what I thought about Bobby Kennedy at the time but in that moment, in the car alone, with no one there to cue me about how to think, how to respond, how to act, I did know one thing. That was the moment I knew that it is obscene for anyone to think somebody’s standing up and speaking their mind, speaking what’s on their heart, is grounds for homicide. In that moment, I realized it doesn’t matter if I embrace what you have to say or if I totally rejected it. You speaking up should not get you shot.

I sat up a little straighter in the driver’s seat. My hand trembled a little as it left the steering wheel and reached out for the dashboard. It was a tiny, timid, political statement but it was my first and I remember it viscerally. I reached for the knob, I pulled those headlamps, and I drove with my high beams on all day.

I’m Gonna Let It Shine – It’s In All of Us

by Storyteller Bill Harley

 

Story Summary:

 Bill gathers a group of musicians together to record an album of Civil Rights freedom songs. However, they learn that they can’t assume they are all on the same page or that underlying emotions and biases aren’t in play.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Im-Gonna-Let-It-Shine–Its-In-All-of-Us

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is it possible to separate ourselves from some of our beliefs? How do we create a dialogue in which we’re able to admit our mistakes?
  2.  What was it about Hollis Watkins that made him able to say things in a way that others could hear? Have you been in a situation where someone found a way to encourage dialogue and   admit our failings? How did they do it?
  3. Do you think we all have prejudice in us?
  4.  What made it difficult for the white musicians and the musicians of color to work together? What history and different life experiences stood between them?
  5.  What is it about music that breaks down barriers?

Resources:

  • Recording – “I’m Gonna Let it Shine – a Gathering of Voices for Freedom” available at Round River Records and www.billharley.com.
  • Sing for Freedom by Guy and Candie Carawan (SingOut Publications) was the sourcebook for the recording.
  • Everybody Say Freedom by Bob Reiser and Pete Seeger (Norton) tells the story of the songs used in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch (stirring accounts of how songs were used in Civil Rights demonstrations and rallies)

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Bill Harley. I’m a storyteller and a songwriter and an author now but before I was that, I was a community organizer and I was also a nonviolence trainer. I, uh, learned how to, uh, train people for, uh, demonstrations and, uh, civil disobedience and also work in the classroom.

Uh, and because of that, uh, when I was working with those organizations, American Friends Service Committee and other organizations, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of people who had been involved in the civil rights movement. Um, I was lucky enough to get to meet a lot of people who had worked with Dr. King:  Walter Fauntroy and Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis; uh, even lucky enough to meet Coretta Scott King and, uh, Dr. King’s father, Daddy King.

And along with that, during that process, uh, I learned a lot of freedom songs, uh, from the civil rights movement: “I’m Gonna Let It Shine,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” uh, “Hold On,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” All those songs and I began to sing them with people; I used them as organizing tools myself. Uh, and listening to Pete Seeger’s 1963 concert, to this great recording of freedom songs recorded in Carnegie Hall so I kind of cut my teeth on those songs. When Martin Luther King’s birthday became a national holiday, I was concerned, uh, because those songs and that movement of nonviolence and what his work was that had such a huge influence to me, that it was really a national holiday. It wasn’t parochialized into like, okay, this is the black holiday, ’cause I really want it to be our holiday. So, I decided I was going to have a freedom sing at my house. And we invited about 25, 30 people musicians, not musicians, people who like to sing and we sang songs for about two hours. And it was there in the middle of January, that the room was steamy and we were singing songs and it was just great. I felt like we raised the house off the foundations so we did that for year after year.

And then, um, a rabbi at a local synagogue asked us if we would do it there. And we ended up, for a number of years, having four or five hundred people come. And it was so good, it was so powerful, I decided that I wanted to make a recording of this… of these songs, not in a formal, uh, performance setting but just to put a bunch of people together and sing them so that they would be sing able for other people.

And I started to ask my friends if they would sing on this recording and they said, Of course,” uh, but I was concerned. I wanted it to be everybody. I wanted it to be black and white together not being black or white but also brown. There’s more and more Hispanic folks in our area. Um, and so, I started to call… reach out to people in my community of different, uh, different backgrounds.

And then I called up Guy Carawan. Guy, uh, just died, um, several months ago and he was a white guy from California but he came to the south and became, uh, involved in the movement. He was a music director for years and years at the, uh, Highlander Center where people came to learn how to organize. And Guy, along with Pete Seeger brought “We Shall Overcome” to the movement and “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table.” And so, I called Guy up and I said, “Guy, I’m thinking about doing this. I’m trying to figure out who to invite.

And he said, “Well, why don’t you just invite the original people.

And I said, “Really!”

He said, “Yeah, here’s a list of names. Here’s a… here’s a bunch of people. The Freedom Singers, this quartet of, of, uh, young black people that went around, traveled the country raising money for Freedom Summer and all those things. And here’s some people who were sneak organizers and here’s a woman who was very close to Dr. King. Why don’t you just call them up? They can all sing. Just ask them.”

Which was kind of overwhelming ’cause I really was a white… a young white guy from the south who had no business doing that, except that I thought it was important and I wanted them to make them our songs. So, I did. I just sucked it up and started to make one phone call after another and almost all of them said, “Yeah, we’ll come.”

I said, “We can pay your way. We’ll make sure you have good food. And they said they would come, which is quite a testament to them because there’s really an issue of cultural appropriation about these songs.

There’s a question about whose songs are these. And it’s a legitimate question but I wanted it…  to make it a bigger tent. And I talked WGBH in Boston into bringing their mobile recording unit down to this retreat center in Rhode Island. I got them to do it for free. I talked to all these people and we took a second mortgage out of our house to pay for this recording and I was way over my head. And I called Guy up. I said, “I’ve got all these people comin’.”

And he said, “You do?”

I said, Uh huh.”

He said, “Well, that’s going to be interesting!”

And I didn’t know exactly what he meant until everybody came there and I realized I had bitten off a lot more than I could chew. First of all, all these people who had been involved in the movement who I only heard of (and I done all my background work on them and gospel music and the history of the movement), they came with their own stories. And there were a lot of unresolved stories there. And then my friends, many of them from the north came and many of them were white and some were people of color – Hispanic and African-American or mixed, whatever, you know, te, whatever we all are.

And that first meal, the first rule in organizing is make sure the food is good. And I had a great caterer and that calmed that placed down. And we immediately had a problem with the recording area because what I wanted was wrong. And we decided we had to do it in a barn but the barn wasn’t heated so I had to go out and get all these heaters to bring in, to heat up the barn.

But everybody looked at each other because this was the past and the present meeting each other. And black and white meeting each other and north and south meeting each other and we were all nervous. Now I’ve been an organizer long enough to know I needed to int… to figure out a way to introduce this. And so, at the end of the meal, I had everybody sit on the floor. There’s probably maybe 30 of us all together including the engineers and everybody and I said, “I want to go around the circle. And I want you to introduce yourself and say one thing, uh, one of your hopes and one of your fears. And it was really awkward.

Uh, the, the white folks, um, were afraid of doing the wrong thing and saying the wrong thing and afraid of being misunderstood and, uh, the, the black folks were scoping people out. Was this just another, uh, incident in which white people were tryin ’to make ’em feel good about something’? And what are they going to do with these songs? Uh, and then I had some friends, uh, from the north, some African-American friends from the north, who were kind of in between, watching all of this go on. And none of us knew what was going to happen. And people were very polite when we are going around the circle and they were saying things to be safe. But that’s no way to sing freedom songs and trying to make sure that you didn’t make any mistakes is not the way to do what’s right. And we… I could feel the tension in the room rising and thinking, “This is beyond myself. This is beyon…; I can’t fix this.”

And then it was Hollis Watkins’ turn and Hollis, um, oh, he’s probably 50 then, I guess. And he was in his early 20s in the early 60s. He was a sneak organizer; he’s from southern Mississippi. Uh, he was one of the last people to see Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, uh, before they drove off in a car and, uh, were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And he said, uh, to me, “I told them not to go!”

And Hollis is to this day, an organizer, uh, in Jackson, Mississippi. Not the best singer but maybe the most moral person there. And when he came…, when it came to his time, he said, “Well, here’s my fear. My fear is that we’re not going to admit that we’re racist. And someone this weekend is going to say something that’s hurtful and has racism in it. And then when someone calls him on it, they’re going to deny it because they’re say, “I’m not a racist. And then we’re not going to get anywhere and we’re just going to draw lines and we won’t get through what we’ve got to get to. So, what I want us all to admit right now is that we are racist.” He said, “How could we not be. Look where we’ve been raised. Everybody in this room doesn’t want to be. We’re all here because we don’t want to be but we are. It’s not who we want to be but we need to admit it. And then when we admit it, we can get past it.”

And you could feel everyone in that room breathe. That, suddenly, the black folks who had brought so much and were… and their lives have been endangered. I realized later, that those people, really, in a sense, had post-traumatic shock that they had been through this cathartic moment in their lives when they’re very young and some of ’em had never… that was the moment of their lives. But that opened and there was this huge relief for us for, for someone like me, that I might make a mistake but that shouldn’t keep me from trying. And we did make mistakes. I made huge mistakes during that weekend but somebody said, “Bill, that’s not right.”

I remember every… somebody said in a recording, “That sounds like church!”

And I said, “This is not about church!”

And they all looked at me. Well, their understanding of what church was and mine was, you know, being raised a white Methodist in the, the, you know, white denomination. Those are two different things. Church meant yeah!

And it took us a long time but we got through it all. There was one moment because I had asked… It was during the anti-apartheid movement, I’d asked a South African poet to come and teach us a couple South African freedom songs. And there, it was like 9 o’clock on a Saturday night in this barn. He taught us “Senzenina,” which is, uh, why am I treated like… this way because of the color of my skin. It’s like a prayer. (Singing) Senzenina, senzenina, senzenina. Senzenina. And all of us there were working in this space together learning a new thing, learning a new way to be, learning a song that none of us know.

And that had a huge effect on me when I realized that I could drop this notion of I’m not racist. I can say, “I don’t want to be and I’m better at it but I don’t hold that up anymore.”

And as soon as we say that I’m not racist, we’re forced to defend our behavior. But what we can say is, “Yeah, I am. It’s in me but it’s not who I want to be. How are we going to get through this together?”

A Child’s Eye View

by Storyteller Cynthia Changaris

 

Story Summary:

 Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina during Jim Crow, Cynthia is baffled by why Black people get to ride in the “best part” of the bus, the back of the bus with the great view out the rear window. She plays with a young boy named Sammy when his mother comes to help Cynthia’s mother with the ironing. Cynthia doesn’t understand when her mother tells her that Sammy is dead and that he died because he couldn’t get to a “colored hospital” in time. When she was 12, Cynthia’s mother takes her to an integrated church service in Winston Salem. Cynthia is able to sense the danger but her heart feels full and happy to be in this circle of women.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Childs-Eye-View

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did white children in the Jim Crow South learn to treat people unfairly? As a young child what were Cynthia’s parents teaching her?
  2. When were you first aware of color? When did you first become aware of injustice? How did you learn who was supposed to be “superior” and who was “inferior”?
  3. Are transportation and health systems free of discrimination today?
  4. Why are churches and other places of worship still so segregated today?

Resources:

  • Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South by William Henry Chafe and Raymond Gavins
  • Deluxe Jim Crow: Civil Rights and the American Health Policy, 1935-1954 by Karen Kruse Thomas

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Cynthia Changaris. I was born in 1948 in Charlotte, North Carolina in the deeply segregated South. And I have some memories from that childhood that I wanted to share with you today. One of my earliest memories, I was so excited because mother was taking me across the town of Charlotte by bus. I had never ridden the bus. And I know how short I was because when we sat down in those two front seats that face each other, my old feet didn’t reach the floor. I could kick the bus; you know, make good noise, which mother didn’t like. And I saw people getting on the bus and going to the back. And every time I saw someone get on the bus and go to the back, it was someone who was a black person and I said, “Mama, why do they get to sit in the back? I want to sit in the back.”

She said, “Shh! I don’t agree with it. Just hush!”

And a man overheard my conversation and he said, “Ma’am, I’ll take her to the back of the bus if you want me to.” So, I took his hand. I went to the back of the bus. He helped me stand up on the seat so I could look out the wide window and look at all the cars and the people and everything. Ah! He prevented me from falling down when the bus lurched and I was happy. But I kept that memory of who got to sit where and why did it happen.

And I knew my mom didn’t agree with it but she didn’t say anything straight out to me either. Now when I got a little bit older, six years old, I went to school. But before you go to school you have to go get new dresses. So, I got six brand new dresses that I twirled around in one evening. And then after the dresses, the health department. I had to go get typhoid shots and I was not happy about that. However, we had to sit a long time in that health department on these wooden benches. And on this side, there were two water fountains. One said colored, one said white. There were two women’s restrooms. One said colored. One said white.

I said, “Mama why are there two water fountains?”

She said, “I don’t agree with it but that’s the way things are.”

I said, “Mama, if I drink from the colored one, am I going to turn colored?” I just wanted to do things right, you know, but I never forgot that memory of thinking this is really not right and it’s not… it’s not the way I think things should be. Just a little girl but I was confused.

Now I… also around that time, had… my mom had a maid. Her name was Laura Ruth. Laura Ruth came to iron for my mama and to babysit for me when Mama couldn’t stand it anymore, which I expect was fairly regular. I don’t know, I was a pretty active kid. Now I didn’t like Laura Ruth because she was very strict and she would yell at me sometimes but I did love her boy. His name was Sammy. Me and Sammy used to get behind the bushes next to the house where we had this little fort. And we would trade off Crockett… Davy Crockett hats, you know, the kind with a raccoon tail on ’em and we would sing that old song that we heard on TV every night.

And we had our pistols in our holsters and we were protecting the world from everything. I loved Sammy and every time he came with his mama, I was happy but there was one day he didn’t come with his mama and I was still quite young. I think between five and six.

And, um, I said, “Mama, where’s Sammy?”

She said, “Honey, he died!”

I said, “Oh, Mama! Well, will he be here next week?”

She said, “No, honey! Died means he’s not going to be here again.”

I really couldn’t capture all that in my brain. I know I didn’t take it in but I do remember listening to everything. And I know I heard my mama talking to my aunt Bet on the phone and she said, “Oh, Bet, if that child would’ve had a good doctor, he wouldn’t have bled to death from getting his tonsils out.” Now my mother would never have told me that but I know I overheard it and something in my heart went “crack” about it. I knew it was wrong and I knew it was because Sammy was black and he didn’t get to have a good doctor.

Now I grew on up in the segregated South. I can remember lots of other strange feelings like if I saw a whole host of black boys walking toward me, I remember feeling nervous and wondering, “Why do I feel nervous? They’re just people.” But I was kind of going inside myself trying to figure all this out.

I was 12 years old when this incident occurred. Mama and I went up to Winston-Salem, North Carolina because my Aunt Sarah (we called her Sister), she had fixed it up so that the Presbyterian black women of the church and the Presbyterian white women of the church were going to hold a meeting in one of the biggest churches in Winston-Salem.

It was enormous and I remember walking in just being totally shocked how big it was. There must have been, oh, I don’t know, 20 rows of people and it was filled up but me and my mama and my Aunt Sarah were the only white people there. I noticed that I had never been in a minority before and I noticed that I kinda liked it. I kinda liked it. And I saw my mother lean over to sister and she said, “Oh, Sister, I’m so sorry that none of the women in your church came to see this and to be a part of this worship service.”

And Sister just sat while the worship service went on. I know there were prayers and songs and whatever but sister sang a solo; she had a high, high voice. It sounded like it could crack but it never did. And she sang the song from Ruth, “Entreat me not to leave thee nor to turn from following thee. Thy people will be my people. Thy God, my God.” I always loved that song; I heard it more than once.

And when that finished, we passed out candles. Mama and me and Sister on the front row – everybody else behind – so we were the last ones to leave but the first to get lit up and this was my favorite part. When the lights were turned down on the church and the lights flowed upward from our candles as they lit row to row to row to row, it was a glow that just touched my heart in every way. We marched out – the last ones to get out the door – and we were singing, “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder. We are climbing higher, higher. We are climbing ever upward!”

And as we marched out the door, there were six police cars with their blue lights going like this and men milling around. And I said, “Mama, what is it?”

She said, “Shh! Keep singing!” And I did because she was firm and we sang all the way up on a hill and we made a huge circle and we looked inward. As we looked inward, every face there glowed. Those candles glowed all of us in a beauty I won’t ever forget. And we sang, “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder. Soldiers of the Cross. Oh, may we go higher and higher!”

Martin and Me – A Coming of Age Story

 

Story Summary:

 Growing up, Steven was involved in Boy Scouts and his church and as a teen he advocated for community development in his New Jersey neighborhood. But could he get involved in the rising black militancy of the late 1960s?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Martin-and-Me

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why was Steven called “too white” by some of his friends? What is “acting white” and how has racism perpetuated these no-win choices of how white or black someone is?
  2. Steven’s neighborhood didn’t have comparable city services such as garbage pickup and water and sewer service. How did the city justify this uneven treatment and what was Steven’s Youth group able to do in the face of this discrimination?
  3. If you were African American in the 1960s would you have become involved with the Black Power movement? In what ways might you show your pride in your African American heritage? For what reasons might you become involved in peaceful protests such as school walkouts or be tempted to participate in more militant actions?
  4. Do you think Steven made the right decision to go to school after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968? How did Steven’s family influence his decisions?
  5. In what ways are we still reaching for Dr. King’s “beloved community”? Do you think it’s an attainable ideal?

Resources:

  •  Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
  • Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley and David Ritz
  • A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Bullying
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Stephen Hobbs. I’d like to share a part of a story about growing up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Right down the highway from Newark.  In the 1960s, at a time when there was great political, cultural racial and social changes.

I blame it on James Brown. In 1967, he came out with a song, “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” That could have been the theme song for the black consciousness movement of the 60s. When we black people were really in love with the color of our skin. We grew our hair out afro style and we wore dashikis from the motherland. But was I really ready to jump fully into the black consciousness movement? I mean, they were talking about revolution. Already people were frustrated with the slow progress. Even with Dr. King’s great movement of nonviolent resistance. Cities like New York and Cleveland and Detroit erupted in flames of riots during the 1967 summer.

But, as a young teenager, I was involved in community development work. I was a member of a civic organization called The Somerville Manor Youth Association. Somerville Manor was the black neighborhood that I grew up in. It was the only black community in Bridgewater. We advocated for sewer lines and water lines in our community. Most of us, most of the families, had outhouses and some even had wells outside and they used to have to work with hand-pump. We also tried to get trash collection and a place for us to play.  But was I really ready for that liberation stuff? I mean, how could I be a radical? My grandmother didn’t like that term. She thought, she thought, one summer when I grew out a beard, she wouldn’t let me into her house because I looked too much like those militants in her, in her our community. And I always wanted to please my grandmother and be a good boy.

Still some of my black friends thought I was trying to act white. Like I was not black enough. Whatever that means. I mean, was it mean, I was an Oreo or because I had too many friends like my buddy, Lougoo Gueotto, who was Italian kid who lived up the street from me? It probably didn’t help my cause, the fact that I was I had a white girlfriend named Elizabeth, with her beautiful blue eyes. In the fall of 1967, I entered high school. And I was elected freshman class president, which is a pretty good thing, considering of the twelve hundred students in my high school, only 26 were black. And I got good grades and made the honor roll.

But still that militancy stuff really got me worried. And then, on April 4th , 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Oh, President Lyndon Johnson asked for calm throughout the country. But the voices of anger, rippled across the land. “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” And cities all across America erupted in riots and flames. We kids and some of old men are still around street corners wondering what we should do. Somebody suggested we should go to the nearby mall and trash some of those stores. But at a meeting of the Somerville Manor Youth Association, it was decided that we would boycott school the day after Dr. King’s funeral. Well, I was at the meeting but I really wasn’t feeling it. Skip school? What would my grandmother say?

Well, the day of the boycott I went to school, in part, because as freshman class president, I was invited to participate in an in-school memorial service for Dr. King. Speaking to the entire student body over the intercom, I read a poem that I had composed in memory of Dr. King the night before. The poem went like this:

It’s not how long you live, it’s how well.

Did you give forth your best effort every day?

It’s not how long you live but how well.

Did you travel along the honest way?

It’s not how long you live but how well.

Did you lend a hand to another?

It’s not how long you live but how well.

Did you love all of your brothers?

It’s not how long you live but how well.

After that, Somerville Manor Youth Association met quite a bit. We talked about our dreams and what our positive response would be. We decided that we would build a youth center where we would have recreational activities and afterschool programs. And a place where we can get mentoring for college and career planning. And, most importantly, we would build it ourselves. We would raise the money. And we, we had car washes and fish fries and barbecues. Someone came up with the idea of having a musical review. We called it The Soul Show. In which everyone would participate if they could, playing Motown music. People who can sing or dance or play instruments, auditioned. I couldn’t sing and I didn’t have any rhythm, so I didn’t get a part in the show. I had to watch from the sidelines. But the show was successful nonetheless. It raised a number, a bit of money, and more importantly, we raised some friends. Our minister Reverend Hodge, he started inviting white clergy to our meetings. And soon we were telling our story at some of those, those pastors’ churches, getting more support.

Then we, we figured we could organize a nonprofit corporation to build the center. At the first official meeting of the nonprofit, I didn’t want to go because it was at the Plukemin Presbyterian Church and I guess my tail feathers were still a little ruffled about not being in the Soul Show. But my girlfriend, Elizabeth, encouraged me to go. And I was elected youth representative for the Executive Board. Oh, we had dozens and dozens of meetings. And I worked closely with the president of the organization, Mr. Richard Theale, a white lawyer who inspired me and showed me how lawyers could use their skills to work for social justice.

By the time I left to go to college in the fall of 1971, the plans had already been made. The architectural drawings rendered and the construction schedule set for the spring of 1972. By the fall of ’72, the doors of the youth center opened with volunteer programs for the kids in the area. On April 8th, 1973, we have the official dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King Youth Center. I was asked to speak and I read the poem I had written five years earlier. Someone read a letter from Mrs. Coretta Scott King. We had a crowd there of people from 23 churches and synagogues in the area. It truly was the embodiment of the vision Dr. King had in his dream of blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Christians, holding hands, singing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Now that was revolutionary.

Too Crazy to Know Better

 

Story Summary:

 Jay O’Callahan shares storyteller Sandra Harris’s story of her involvement in the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Too-Crazy-to-Know-Better

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do people get involved in the cause of justice?
  2. Who do you know who has taken a risk for justice?
  3. When has the government taken the side of injustice? Why would this happen and what actions have people taken to change the government’s position? What causes are people fighting for today?

Resources:

  •  Miracle in Birmingham, a Civil Rights Memoir – 1954-1965 by W. Edward Harris,
  • Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, Public Television

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

I’m Jay O’Callahan. I’m going to tell a story that Sandra Harris, a storyteller from Indianapolis, has given me permission to tell. It takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. I tell it in the voice of Sandra Harris.

I’m Sandra Harris. Nineteen sixty-three, I was living in Birmingham, Alabama. I had two children. I was pregnant. My husband, Ed, was away and I read in the newspaper Dr. Martin Luther King was, he was going to be speaking at the 16th Street Baptist Church downtown Birmingham. So, I got a babysitter and went down to the church. And I felt so welcome. Here I was pregnant, only white person in this whole church and I squeezed in. And it was so crowded, people were standing around the back and talkin’.

Dr. Martin Luther King, he stood…and there was presence. And I wrote down what he said at the end and I’m going to read that. He said, “I don’t need to tell anyone here tonight, what a long struggle this has been and it’s not nearly over. But brothers and sisters, let all who oppose us know this. We will stand in the face of poll taxes and we will cry ‘Freedom!’ We’ll stand in the face a job description, discrimination, and we’ll cry ‘Freedom!’” And by then everybody knew that every sentence was going to end with “we’ll cry Freedom!’”

He said, “We’ll stand in the face of hatred, we’ll cry ‘Freedom!’” On and on he went. “Because we’re children of a living God and citizens of this great country. And we will stand and cry ‘Freedom!’”

But by that time everyone is crying, “Freedom, freedom, freedom!” I’m not exaggerating. It seemed like the walls of that church were vibrating. And I knew this was not a movement. This was a revolution. And it was going to succeed, no matter what the cost. Course, I didn’t know the cost was going to be five years later, Dr. Martin Luther King was going to be murdered. I didn’t know just a few months later, there would be a bomb placed inside of that church, 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls are going to, were going to die. Those girls, I always carry, this. Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Cynthia (Carole) Robertson, that was the cost.

Well, I didn’t get involved in the march all the way from Selma to Montgomery. I didn’t face the hoses. But I did get a call just a few weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King was there, from a friend of mine, Jan Tomasack, from the Unitarian church, to go down to the superintendent’s office. You see, Dr. King had asked the students to come out and join the demonstrations. All of them were arrested. And the superintendent had expelled them. Some of these students were seniors and it was not fair. So, I went down, six white women, went into the office superintendent. I waddled in, eight months pregnant. And the superintendent was furious. We would, we would dare to challenge his, his decision. And he kept saying over and over, “I told those children, if they participated in demonstrations, they would be expelled and I’m true to my word!”

Well, he went on and on and on. There was no meeting place. And so finally I said, “Dr. Stow, Do the students read? Do they read the Declaration of Independence?”

“Course, they do.”

“Do they read the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? And do they read…”

“They read all of that stuff and we give them a test.”

And I said, “Well, that’s good and maybe they learned a little more than you expected them to learn.” Well, he was furious. He went on and on. We left.

My husband, Ed, and I, we joined something called Alabama Council of Human Relations. And this is blacks and whites talking about the future. We decided the thing to do was to go to one another’s homes, talk things over. So, we had a black couple, one Sunday, come, and after that the phone calls began, threatening us and our children. We’re staggered, we’re terrified. So, Ed and I decided to call my mother in Nashville, Tennessee, 200 miles away. I said, “Mother, Ed and I need to talk. Can you take the children for a few days?”

She said, “Fine.”

I was working so Ed took the children 200 miles. The moment he stepped into my mother’s house, the phone rang. He picked it up and a voice said, “You don’t deserve to live!” Oh, we were shocked. Nobody knew we were going to Nashville. Not even our best friends. We had heard about the phone being bugged. But now we knew. It was bugged. We didn’t know for sure, but it was it was said that there was a state committee that bugged the phones of people they didn’t like, like us. Now we’re worried about the life of our children. We knew what they could do. These people with violence.

We know because back in 1956, Ed and I were in college in Birmingham and Nat “King” Cole was in town. He was going to be singing at the Birmingham auditorium. And that was wonderful because most artists wouldn’t come because of segregation. In those days the blacks have to sit up, upstairs balcony, white folks downstairs. So my, so, Nat “King” Cole said, “I will come. Two concerts; one for whites, one for blacks.”

So Ed and I go to the white concert and Nat “King” Cole is singing. Then we heard this commotion and turned. Six men were running down the aisle and they were shouting, “Get him!’

Those men jumped up on the stage and they started beating Nat “King” Cole. Kicking him and knocking him down. Finally, band members got up and they pulled them off. Security members come. Nat “King” Cole was hurt, he was taken off stage. The band began to play “This Land of Liberty.” Then Nat “King” Cole came out on the stage and stood there…and he started singing. So, we left with all those memories of those songs but we left with the memory of that violence. That stupid meaningless violence. And now that violence was turned towards us and our children.

Well, Ed was accepted to graduate school in Boston. So, we left for the frozen north. At least our children safe.

Now, I like to tell that story because it reminds me of the courage of all those black people, all those white people who fought for freedom.

Hot Chili and Crackers: A Racial Stew with Danger

 

Story Summary:

Mama Edie’s Black Theater Ensemble is invited to perform her original composition called “Metamorphosis” at a university in Iowa in 1970. After what had been a peaceful and joyful journey along the way, the ensemble members come to realize that Civil Rights had not yet fully taken root, not even in the north.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Hot-Chili-and-Crackers-A-Racial-Stew-with-Danger

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you or has anyone in your family ever been in a situation where you felt not only unwelcome but in danger just because of the color of your skin?  If so, what was the situation and what was it like?
  2. If someone was being mistreated because of their so-called race, gender, religion or ethnic heritage, do you think that you could speak up for them?  If so, how would you go about it?  If not, why not?
  3. How can we turn the anger of a painful past into something life giving and productive?  What is the likely end result if we do not, if we don’t find within ourselves a place of peace?

Resources:

  • The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (A fictional tale of the mysterious journey into the experience of invisibility of an entire race of people.)
  • Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin – a non-fiction book, also produced as a film, that reflects on the experiences of a European/white American who disguises himself as an African American.
  • Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Some’

Themes:

  • African American/Blacks
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes & Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Edith McLeod Armstrong but most people just call me Mama Edie.

You know, growing up as a child in the 50s and the 60s was a very, very exciting and stimulating time for many reasons. Some of them weren’t so pleasant but some of them were great. Oh, we had some of the best music and some of the best dances. And whereas at one point in time people, many people who were not of African-American culture, would shun our music and say, “Oh those are bad dances.” All of a sudden, Dick Clark came along and, honey, everybody was doing our dances. And everybody was trying to sing our songs and we came to a place of sharing that we had never been before.

Well, along came the time that I needed to go to college and I wanted to go to college. I was excitedly looking forward to it. I went off to Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Illinois, in 1969. And during that summer, there was an orientation weekend. And I got a chance to meet some really, really great kids and the campus was beautiful. And I frequently went to my favorite area by the lagoon, where we had these great weeping willow trees and swans swimming all over the place. It was really great. Well, this one particular day, a friend and I, a new friend, his name was Corky, went to town. Well, in those days we didn’t have the buses so we walked everywhere we needed to go. But of course, I stayed streamlined in those days. But in any case, Corky was a great guy. One of the things that I appreciated about him was that he had such an intelligent conversation without really sounding highbrow. I mean he had something to talk about. So, we talked about everything from soup to nuts. And so, we went to town and on our way back, I remember we were crossing the bridge of the lagoon, going back onto the campus. And he had started asking me some serious things. And all of a sudden, he asked me, “Edie, what do you think about the establishment?”

I said, “What establishment?” Well, I had been raised in Catholic elementary schools and I had good upbringing and we had social studies. But nobody ever asked me of the establishment. And so, I said, “I don’t know what are you talking about.”

He said, “You know the way the country is run. What do you think about that?”

I said, “I don’t know. I guess it’s all right.”

“Well,” he said, “But what about the civil rights movement and what about the people who still can’t vote, especially down in the south? And what do you think about Affirmative Action? And what do you think about reparations and do you think we’re really free?”

Holy moly! My head was spinning. I didn’t know what to say. And so, he said… I tell you what, he did make me feel stupid as I felt. He was very kind.

And he said, “I tell you what, I got some books you need read.”

I said, “OK. Lay them on me.” I loved reading anyway. And he gave me a book by a man whose name at that time, his birth name, was Don Lee. But he is now known as Haki Madhubuti. And this is a book of his poetry. He was on fire. He was angry with the way things were going for our people, for African-Americans, for Latinos, for Asians. He was angry about the inequities about the injustices, all across the board. He was a little bit disappointed. No, he was a big bit disappointed. He was downright disgusted, as a matter of fact, with how frequently African-Americans would seem to forgive too quickly and then forget. And then we’d be right back into the same situation that we were in before. So, as I read his material, his poetry, it shocked me into consciousness. It prompted me to read more. I read everything I could get my hands on. And suddenly, I wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to help make things better not only for my people but for everybody.

So, I wrote a piece, I don’t know what you call it, I guess it was kind of an essay, called “Metamorphosis.” And it was spoken from the voice of a black woman directed to her black man. Now, this was actually a piece that you would say that was directed towards all black men who were moving from their colored boyhood into their black manhood. Well, a friend of mine Mac Jones who was at the university working on his master’s in theater. Both of us were involved with black theater at the time of the university. And he decided he was going to get nosy and went through my notebook that was laying on my desk and saw some of the poetry and the other pieces that I had written.

When I came back into the room, he said, “Edie, girl, this stuff is good! We need to do something with this!”

And I said, “Oh go on.” I said, “What are you doing in my notebook anyway?”

And so, after we got serious and we talked about it, we ended up combining some of his material with some of my material and we developed a Reader’s Theater Production. And we got the support of the university to do the production there. And then, there were some people from a university in Iowa who saw it and everybody responded so well to it, that we were invited to do the production in Iowa. Well, we were so excited. This was our first road trip. And we had gotten the support of the university to get a bus and we had food. People had fried some chicken and you know what I’m saying. We had some potato salad and lemonade and fruit and we were even playing Bid Whist on the back of the bus. We had drummers and so we used the skins of the drums as the Bid Whist table, a very popular card game among African-Americans. And everything was going well. Some people were just sitting quietly reading in the bus. Some people were having quiet conversations. But then, as we approached the wide-open countryside and the cornfields, all of a sudden, our bus driver, who happened to be a white American, said to us, he said, “You know, you guys, might want to put your heads down during this particular stretch of the road.”

We said, “What did you say?”

He said, “You need to put your heads down for about another mile or two down the stretch of the road.”

And we said, “Well, what are you talking about? Why?”

And he said, “Well, people have been taking pot shots at blacks, and Latinos, and Asians down the strip of road and a couple of people have gotten killed. And they don’t know who’s doing it. And quite frankly, I’m not sure that the local law enforcement is really looking very carefully. So, you may want to put your heads down.”

Didn’t have to tell us again, we put our heads down. We went into a stony silence and we continued that way until our bus driver said, “OK, you can come back up now.”

And when we did, we remained in silence. Each one, I’m sure sharing the same thoughts, all the way, almost to the town, where we got to a little side cafe restaurant, where we went inside to get some food. And then my friend, Mac Jones, decides he’s going to be a little bit devilish. So, he goes inside. We’re all inside. And of course, the people are, they turned and stared at us coming in the door. We did not feel like the welcome wagon was there. And everybody was ordering their food and were going in very carefully, very carefully, because we weren’t feeling a sense of being welcome there.

And Mac, who’s a very tall, husky guy with a big beard, he looks dead at the waitress and says, “Hi. Do ya’ll have any chili? I’d like some chili.” And he looked at me.

And she said, “Yeah, we had chili.”

And so he looked at me and he said, “Yeah, that’s fine. That’s fine. Well, tell me, do you have any crackers? Cause I’d like to have some crackers with my chili?”

And he looked at me again and I said, “Oh, we’re going to die.” Because you know the term crackers, when it was used by African-Americans, was actually a derogatory term to refer to white folks who were poor and disenfranchised as we were. And I’m sure that everybody in that restaurant knew it.

I said, “Oh my, this man is going to get us killed.” Well, as it happened we didn’t die because I’m here to tell the story. And we were able to leave. We continued on our way. I blasted Mac when we got outside of the restaurant but we laughed it off. We continued on to the University of Iowa. We had another great show and we came back with a lot of memories.

A Crack in the Wall: Moving Beyond Racial Conditioning

 

Story Summary:

 In A Crack in the Wall a white man has an experience at a copy shop that causes him to examine the negative impact racial conditioning has had on him. He is disturbed when he realizes that he has been indifferent to the historical suffering of African Americans, and he becomes painfully aware of his subconscious denial and patronizing attitude towards them.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Crack-in-the-Wall-Moving-Beyond-Racial-Conditioning

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How is it possible for a white person to be unaware of systemic unjust treatment of African Americans?
  2. Discuss how racial conditioning can cause white Americans to deny the systemic injustice that for African Americans is all too real.
  3. Why is being treated in a patronizing way so devastating?
  4. What are the rewards of connecting cross-racially?

Resources:

  • Savage Inequalities, Death at an Early Age and The Shame of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol
  • Honky by Dalton Conley
  • True Colors – ABC Prime Time Live 1994
  •  Longing: Stories of Racial Healing by Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Gene. I’m going to tell a story called A Crack in the Wall. It’s adapted from the book “Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.”

In 1993, a friend invited me to a Race Unity workshop. Uh, and I really didn’t wanna go. I was really nervous about it, because I knew my life was going to change. Or I, I thought my life would change because I had never really delved into the whole issue of race. But I went anyhow. Uh, and I got snagged right from the beginning, because I was learning about institutional racism, and something I had been totally ignorant about. But I was learning how in every institution, African-Americans and other people of color, have been disadvantaged, uh, by the racism that permeates the institutions of the country. Uh, what I was learning is that, that whites – white people, white citizens wield power in virtually all of these institutions. And, so, we were given the definition. Racial prejudice plus power equals racism, and so the… it was a really compelling equation. But it led to the deduction that if you’re white in America, you’re racist. And I had a bit of a reaction to that.

I was thinkin’, “Well, I don’t really have any power. You know, I don’t feel superior. I’m just a cog in the, uh, corporate machinery.”

So, but as I listened to more of the lectures, aaa… I, I learned about the inequalities, yea… oh… abou… as far as, uh, disadvantages that people of color have in this country because of inter… and the institutional racism. I had been ignorant of all this stuff.

I grew up in the 50s. As a child, I was old enough to have been aware of the race riots, and the protests, and all the civil rights stuff that was goin’ on at the time. But when, when I saw the, the videos that they were showing in the workshop, the imagery of the, of, uh, people getting’ blasted with water hoses, uh, children and adults getting’ attacked by snarling dogs. These weren’t just blurry images.

I didn’t have any memory of them at all, and I’m thinking, “How can, how can I have grown up in that period and not have been aware of that, because I was only 50 miles away from Chicago, where a lot of this stuff was going down?”

Well, to be aware of your indifference can lead to denial. Denial is a kind of a tricky, uh, thing to understand. Uh, denial occurs when you are aware of something that’s in(un)conscionable, and you can’t label it, or don’t want to acknowledge it.

Uh, another example would be, if there was a hideous creature standing in front of me, and somebody said… started to describe it to me. And, uh, said how it smelled, what it looked like, and something.

And I was unable to perceive it, and I would say, “No, no! You’re just imagining that. You know that’s not real. You know, let… you’re, you’re being oversensitive. Let’s just, just get on with normal, normal life here.”

That would be a kind of an example of denial, when there’s something that egregious, that’s so obvious to other people, that you can’t see. So, it’s a tricky thing to, to… for us who are white to get our brains around.

Uh, and I was learning that African-Americans in this country have been pointing to racism, that hideous creature, for centuries. And that white folks had not, and still haven’t, have not been able to recognize it, label it, and give it, give it, um, give it, uh, uh, you know, the reality that it’s due, you know. It’s sort of invisible.

So, I started to become aware of my own racial conditioning and it was, was get… was becoming a little bit painful for me, because every time that we… I left the house now, I was aware of my racial conditioning. If I was driving through a fast food place, I was conscious. If the cashier was black, I would get a little anxious, and I was, suddenly, conscious of that. If the cashier was white, I would feel at ease. In my conversations with, uh, acquaintances who were African-American, now I was really sensitive about what I was saying.

“Are my words coming out racist, exposing some deep-seated racism in me.”

Uh, I’m sure people were aware of it, but I was just becoming aware of that stuff, so I was really nervous about what’s coming out.

Uh, watching TV, I would see African-Americans in important peo… places in new shows and, uh, different, different sh…, uh, programs. And I would actu… I would be aware of actually wondering if they were qualified to be in those positions.

So, uh, in public places, I had to think, “Well, how do I interact with African-Americans? Should I smile at them? Should I look in their face? Should I say something? Should I just act nonchalant? But that’s not really doing anything.”

It was very, very painful. I felt very clumsy and awkward, as if I had just read about the history of the piano, and now I was sitting down at a baby grand and tryin’ to perform a Chopin piece.

So, one day, back in 1993, I walk into a local copy shop preoccupied with my own project, but I, uh, at the service counter, I see an African-Am… young, African-American woman giving directions to, uh, the attendant that was serving her. So, I kind of went and hid behind a, uh, kiosk of, of supplies, and watched the whole action. I had never seen an African-American in that shop before, and I’d been going there quite a number of years. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if there were any African-Americans that lived in our town. So, I wanted to see how this white guy that was serving her, eh, uh, handled this unusual situation.

So, as I was watching her, I thought, “Well, look at that young, black woman. She is really competent. She’s really confident in what she’s doin’. She knows her stuff. Look at her take charge there, and she’s nicely dressed, nice pantsuit. I bet she works for some law firm in the area here.” And, uh, so, as I’m thinking this, all of a sudden, I’m thinking, “Hmm, you know what! I’m being patronizing.”

And it really knocked… knocked me for a loop. I have been… had, uh, gone to the third night of the workshop that I referred to. And, so, in this workshop, we were told that we, as white folks, feel superior to black folks, and, uh, and that we are born racists. But we learn racists… racism, and, uh, and, so, we can unlearn it.

So, I’m standing there and I’m having this thought about being patronizing and thinking, “How do I unlearn this, in this situation?”

Uh, I’m tryin’ to apply my, my new understanding here, so, I discovered what I call “a crack in the wall.” The wall is this, uh, is this racial conditioning. And I discovered this little fissure where I could see through, and see that there was a reality beyond the wall. And I asked myself what lay beyond the wall?

Well, as we started traveling, my wife and I, we, we formed many relationships with African-Americans along the way, who were very generous, sharing stories with us. Uh, over the dinner table, they would talk about, uh, racial situations that their family members were involved in.

You know, just coming home from church, being stopped by the police, and being asked, “Why… what are you doing in this neighborhood?”

You know, fellows going out for loans and, uh, being rejected for loans and so forth. These were things I was unaware of. But the generosity of the people that, uh, we were interacting with, was, was… had the effect of breaking down all of this mythology, that we have been raised with, as, as white citizens.

Um, so, after years of participation, uh, in the workshop, uh, going through all the classes, and actually becoming a facilitator myself, I really thought I knew something. But what I discovered is that the truth about race and racial healing lay outside the classroom, beyond the state line, out of my comfort zone. If I had known how many embarrassing moments it would take for me to develop just a little bit of humility in this issue, uh, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to go to that first workshop. But, you know, embarrassment is a small price to pay for the rewards of engaging in racial healing. The rewards are sharing compassion, sharing forgiveness.

Uh, sharing forgiveness and trusting. Learning how to trust people from whom we’ve been separated, and trust being trustworthy. That’s a big one for me. Learning how to be trustworthy as a white man in this country is a biggie. So, these are the rewards. And, they convince me, that, um, when we eliminate the separation, when we go… somehow whittle away at that crack, we get on the other side of the wall. We engage. We, uh, we connect with folks, and then we learn how we can, how we can, uh, build communities that are, uh, ensuring the well-being of all of its citizens.

City of Hope:

The 2011 Occupy Movement Looks at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

 

Story Summary:

 In 2011, Sue meets a group of young people at an Occupy Chicago demonstration who are unaware of activists’ movements in the past that occupied public lands. Sue shares the story of The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign – Dr. King’s last crusade that was carried on after his death in 1968.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: City-of-Hope-The-2011-Occupy-Movement-Looks-at-the-1968-Poor-Peoples-Campaign

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do the two movements – the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and the 2011 Occupy Movement – have in common? How are they different?
  2. Why did Dr. King want the mule train to start in Marks, Mississippi? Why did he expand his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to include all poor people?
  3. Has the Occupy Movement had an influence in politics and media? (For instance, Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and movies such as The Big Short)
  4. Is there any cause that you would camp out for in order to express your feelings and ideas?

Resources:

  • The 99%: How the Occupy Wall Street Movement is Changing America by Clara Blumenkranz and Keith Gessen
  • Marks, Martin and the Mule Train: The Origins of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign by Hillard Lawrence Lackey

Themes:

  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran.  In the fall of 2011, I went to observe an Occupy Movement demonstration in Chicago. Now the Occupy Movement was happening in major cities all across the country.  People were protesting home foreclosures and job loss and, more generally, the structure of the economy that’s separating, making a widening gap, between the haves and the have nots. So, I was sitting at Grant Park by Lake Michigan.  And they were waiting for the sound system to show up. So, one of the organizers stood up and said, “Does anybody know a joke?”  So one after another from young people to older adults, I mean, teachers and I met firemen and union workers. They started to stand up and tell silly knock, knock jokes.  And I started to think about how the media sometimes, you know, portrays demonstrators.  There’s always a weird one in every group that portrays them as these agitators, you know. And they looked so innocent as everybody was telling their knock, knock jokes.  And then, that sound system arrived and I saw how organized they were because we had reports from different committees. There was the finance committee and the spiritual community and the diversity committee and every state representative got up and gave their report.  Well, I left this peaceful demonstration.  I was walking up Jackson Boulevard, up towards LaSalle Avenue and I was talking with some young people about 20 somethings.  So, I asked them why they were involved in the Occupy Movement. And one tall, slender, young man with brown hair said, “Oh, we have got to make a large statement, otherwise we’ll just have these liberal reforms, you know, just a slap on the hand to Wall Street. We have got to change the whole economy.”  I said,  “Well, how do you think you do that?”  And he said, “Well, we know economies change and we don’t live in feudalism anymore. We’ve got to make people aware of all the lies they’re being given. We’ve got to, you know, set ‘em straight and, I don’t know, after that we’ll just kind of make it up as we go along.  This is a whole new thing.”   I smiled. I said, “Did you know that there’s been people movements in the past that have occupied public land and they were demonstrating about the economy and such?”  And they said, “No.”  So I told him this story.

Right before Dr. King’s death in 1968 he had this vision for poor people’s campaign. He wanted to bring thousands of people to Washington to show that other face of America that people didn’t see.  People living in poverty.  Now, he was talking more and more these days about racism and how it was connected to foreign policy which meant we didn’t have a good domestic policy. He wanted to redistribute wealth.  And one of the young women, slight woman with a huge backpack on said, “That’s just like us!  He was just like us!”

I said, “Yeah but he had this other idea of a guaranteed annual income.”

“Wow!” they said.  “How did he pull that one off?”

I said, “Well, he didn’t quit but he talked a lot about how many people were never really fairly compensated for their work and how the rich were subsidized all the time, so why not support the common man?”

But then Dr. King was assassinated. 1968, April.  Now everybody was in grief and disarray but they decided to continue with this idea. So, May 13th, was the beginning of the poor people’s campaign. Thousands of people camping out for six weeks in the Washington Mall to try to bring visibility to the poverty that existed in our country.  And the young people said to me, “Wow, imagine organizing that.  Thousands of people overnight.  We’re, we’re excited if a couple of hundred people will come out with us and some will stay overnight and sleep on the sidewalks.”  Well, what happened is Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s successor, opened it up by being dressed in a Levi’s jacket, no shirt, carpenter’s apron and driving the first nail into the two by four.  And as he did everybody shouted, “Freedom, freedom.” And at first it was all enthusiasm and everybody was organized. They had three men teams that would build A-frames.  Put them up in 15 minutes, another house, another house. A lot of people said this first house I ever had.  And they’d decorate their house with stars and dots or they put a name like the Sugar Shack or they put some inspirational phrase like vinceremus, we shall overcome.

But there was a big split going on leadership people didn’t necessarily know about. Some thought they should use Dr. King’s confrontational, nonviolent way.  They should get themselves arrested, fill the jails, move the moral conscience of the country that there were people who couldn’t even feed their kids.  But then there was a whole other contingent.  See, after Dr. King died, I told the young people, there were riots all across the country.  And like, “No, no.  We got to make sure there’s no violence. Sometimes when there’s a arrest there could be violence. We got to come in soft. We’ve got to do softer demonstrations; we’ll build to this big solidarity rally.”  Because you see, the Congress had really moved to the right. They were all law and order after all the riots.  And the FBI was not treating the Poor People’s Campaign like fellow citizens exercising their right to speech. They were treating ‘em like an invading army and were sabotaging at every turn. And President Johnson had kind of lost some support for civil rights when Dr. King started speaking out about the Vietnam War. So, the young people said, “Who won out?  The confrontational ‘Let’s get arrested’ or are the non-confrontational?”

I said, “Well, it was the ‘let’s not make trouble’ group.” They really had to watch it.  So, what they did when they’re about 40 different small demonstrations they go to different departments of the government make their demands, their speeches, sing some songs, come back to camp.

“Was it the right way to go?” said the young man to me.

I said, “Well, see that, you never know when you’re in the middle of it do you?  Just like you all don’t know if your strategies are going to work.  But, I got to tell you, I don’t know whether they did one way or the other if anything were to work because of outside forces beyond their control.”

“Like what?” they said.

“Weather. Weather,” I said.  “It rained day after day after day that whole camp turned into a muddy quagmire. And the big food tent collapsed under the weight of all that rain.  And they never had the chance to finish the plumbing and the sanitation and the drainage system so they had to bus people out to even bathe.”

“Wow!” said that same girl.  She said, “We just had to figure out what restaurants will let us use the bathroom.”  Yeah, and talk about food. They never get the hot meal plan together so every day… think of it.  Six weeks.  Same thing, bologna and cheese, salami and cheese, ham and cheese, cheese and cheese.  And people’s spirits go down when they’re not eating well. “Tell me about it,” said the young man.  He held up a bag of chips. “This is my dinner.” Well, solidarity came without a hitch. Hundreds of buses showed up. Big name entertainment, kind of a picnic atmosphere but everybody said there wasn’t that feeling like the 1963 March on Washington.

Very few people believed it would really have much impact.  In those last weeks, only a few hundred people remained and it turned into an unruly site.  All kinds of arrests.  So the night of June 24th, the government met with Ralph Abernathy, some of the other leaders to try to plan. How were they going to bring this camp down in a peaceful way?  So, the leaders of the poor people campaign had demonstration, brought people, as many they could offsite and policemen moved in. In 90 minutes they just tore apart their camp and it was gone. “So,” they said to me. “Failure or success. What do you think?” I said, “See, it always depends how you look at it.”

Here’s a high point for me for the Poor People’s Campaign.  Marian Wright, a civil rights leader, a lawyer.  One day, about the fourth week into the campaign, she had sh… she got this impromptu group.  It was black and Chicano, representatives of First Nations, poor whites, to go with her to a Senate committee. She got them to talk in front of a Senate committee about their lives. What was this unseen America? What was it like to live among broken promises and not even be able to provide for your children or get the most basic shelter? Now it had its impact because George McGovern was in that committee.  And a couple of years later when Senator McGovern, this was before he ran for president, was the head of the Senate Select Committee on nutrition needs and human needs. They work, they do a lot of things, but they pass the food stamp law. “Wait a minute,” said one of the young men.  “You’re telling me it took a massive six-week campaign and years of legislation before they even passed food stamps.”

“Yep,” I said. “It kind of shows what the Poor People’s Campaign was up against.”

We were at my car by then and I said to them, “I know you think of something like food stamps, like a liberal reform. It didn’t change the whole economic structure by any means. When I think of all the thousands of families that have been fed and cared for by that one program, I’m really grateful for all those people in 1968 that came and exercised their right of free speech to try to make the country see, that there were people who were in poverty right in front of her eyes that we weren’t seeing.  I always feel like we’re standing on mighty big shoulders.  I mean we’re not in this alone. We didn’t just invent this now.”

Well, we said our goodbyes and the mother in me came out, I had to say, “Now you be careful sleeping on the sidewalk tonight.” I started driving back home, I thought, I don’t know how you change your whole economic system.  But I do know that honoring the past and learning from the past is one of the keys to success. Learning what did work as well is what didn’t work. I was really glad I got to share that story with the young people and I looked forward to hearing more of theirs.

Mary McLeod Bethune: An American Educator and Civil Rights Leader

 

Story Summary:

 In this excerpt from a longer story, Elizabeth tells of the time Mary McLeod Bethune faced down the Ku Klux Klan to provide education for African-American girls.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Mary-McLeod-Bethune-An-American-Educator-and-Civil-Rights-Leader

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you read a biographical sketch of Mary McLeod Bethune on the internet, it will tell you a lot about her accomplishments. You won’t read much about her challenges. Why do you think that is the case?
  2. Which was a greater challenge to Mary McLeod Bethune – racism or poverty? How are the two linked?
  3. How does secrecy protect hate? Is there a connection between this and cyber bullying today? What is that connection?

Resources:   

  • Mary McLeod Bethune by Elouise Greenfield – a picture book illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
  • www.marybethuneacademy.org

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

of fear that ran through the room. Even the youngest of the children had heard about the beatings and the lynchings.

She said, “You teachers, you turn out all the lights and when I clap my hands for the signal, flip on every light at once.”

One teacher asked her the only question, “Won’t that make us a bigger target?”

“Do what I ask.” she said. And they did.

She turned to the students and she said, “You, little ones, you stay where you are. You try not to be afraid. You, older ones, you come with me. We’ll go and meet them.”

And they trusted her, so, they followed her. She went out and stood right in front of her school building. And the children arranged themselves on the steps of the school and rose the way they always did whenever there were visitors to the school. By now, you could look down the road and see 30 or 40 pairs of headlights coming down the road from town. And still, she stood and she waited.

When the first car came to the end of her driveway, it stopped and a man got out in a long, white robe and a tall, pointed cap with a mask across his face. In the glare of the headlights, you could see the purple insignia of the Ku Klux Klan. He stood there and he held all the traffic back that was going in the other direction. So that the whole motorcade could pass down her driveway without being interrupted. And still, she stood and she waited.

And when the headlights of the first car flashed across her body, she clapped her hands for the signal and every light behind her went on at once. Standin’ there with that bright light shinin’ in front and behind her, she looked like some tall, dark, avenging angel. And she opened her mouth and she began to sing an old song, born of her people’s pain and their perseverance, “When Israel was in Egypt land,” and the children on the steps behind her answered back like they always did when that old song was sung, “Let my people go.”

And that first car just kept inching past her. So, her voice grew stronger and the children sang out louder. And the next car just kept inching past her. If you had been there, it might have looked to you like a parade passing in review, in front of an old woman and a school full of children, as they sat… stood there and sang out their faith. Not one car stopped!

The men in those cars began to hunker down, like they’d realized what it meant for a bunch of grown men armed with cut… guns and clubs to go after a school full of children and an old woman. Now, I wish I could tell you that Mary McLeod Bethune never had any more trouble with the Klan, but you and I both know that ignorance takes a long time to die, doesn’t it? I can tell ya, her school never closed. You could visit it today. It’s called Bethune-Cookman college.

Mary McLeod Bethune went on to be a world-renowned educator, on the Presidential Cabinet of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a close personal friend of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She was honored and respected.

She touched the lives of thousands of people. Why was she able to do that? She was able to do it because she was able to get an education. And how did the daughter of sharecroppers who had been slaves get an education?

Oh, a white woman livin’ in Denver, Colorado read an article in the newspaper about the plight of African-American children and how they couldn’t get an education.

And she said to herself, “Five days a week, I work as a dressmaker to support myself and my family. I could work a sixth day, and with what I earn on that sixth day, I could send that money to educate one child.”

And that’s what she did. She never met Mary McLeod Bethune but she changed Mary McLeod Bethune’s life, and through Mary McLeod Bethune, the lives of thousands of other people.

Can one peop… person make a difference? Huh? Can one person make a difference? Hh. What a silly question!

FROM MOON COOKIES TO MARTIN AND ME

By Storyteller LYN FORD

 

Story Summary:

Empathy grows from sharing stories; this story was shared to encourage others to know, to understand, and to remember. This is a personal journey tale from Lyn’s childhood living next door to a Holocaust survivor and, then, her adolescent small but mature steps into the greater Civil Rights Movement.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: From-Moon-Cookies-to-Martin-and-Me

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Ignorance can lead to misinterpretation of a story. As a child, Lyn misunderstood the meaning of numbers printed on skin. Discuss how stereotypes are misinterpretations based on superficial concepts.
  2. Fences aren’t always made of wood; walls aren’t always made of brick or stone. What fences separate your community, your neighborhood, or your heart from others who, superficially, seem “different”? What’s the first step you can take to get beyond those fences?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Lyn Ford.  And when I was a little girl, we lived with my Grandma Cooper in Sharon, Pennsylvania on Mercer Avenue. In those days Grandma Cooper didn’t watch TV because there wasn’t one.  And she didn’t always listen to the radio.  But she spent a lot of time on either side of her yard, gossiping at the fence with her neighbors. One of the neighbors was a little woman, no taller than my Grandma Cooper, who always had a kerchief wrapped around her head, sometimes tied under her chin, and she wore long dark sleeves, which would kind of showed when she leaned on the fence. My grandma Cooper leaned on the fence beside her, she kept those sleeves pulled down. But sometimes in the warm weather she would slide them up.  And her name was Mrs. Rosenberg.

Mrs. Rosenberg would use words that Grandma never used and they sounded like music to me. She would add exclamations to what she was saying, Oy, gevalt!  or Oy, ve is mir! !  She would say things about someone else who is a bit narish, bit narish, and it sounded like music to me. So I would say things to my cousins “Stop being so narish. Oy, gevalt!.”  Sounded kind of funny, I am sure coming from a little African American child and I didn’t even know what it meant. But it seemed to work and I was impressed with that language. Mrs. Rosenberg also made these wonderful crescent shaped cookies that were filled with nuts and sometimes with golden raisins instead of brown ones and sweetness …  and I loved those. Every now and then she would call me to the fence “Darling, come here. I have something for you.” She would hold out her hand and I would get that moon cookie. I loved those moon cookies.

And I know that I got into trouble for something when I was that age, because I always did, and I had to stay in the house and I pouted and I wanted something to make me feel better. And I thought about those moon cookies. So, I thought I would call Mrs. Rosenberg and I picked up that big black receiver on that big black phone and started to dial on that circular dial. And all I got was an operator, a real person compared to what you get these days. He told me that I needed to try again or to hang up the receiver.

Well I know I was permitted to escape from the house the next day and I did something I hadn’t done. I went to Mrs. Rosenberg’s door and I knocked on it and she came to the door and I can’t remember exactly what she said but I told her that I had tried to call her. I wanted more of the moon cookies. I wanted to see if she would give me a moon cookie, but the number didn’t work.

And Mrs. Rosenberg said something like, “You know my number? You called my number? What number did you call?” Then I said, “Well, I dialed the numbers on your arm, but it didn’t work.” I thought the numbers on Mrs. Rosenberg’s arm, the arm that I seldom saw, except when she pushed up the sleeves on her long dark shirts, was her phone number. I thought she’d written it there, maybe she couldn’t remember it. Written it there the way some of the older girls in my family and in the neighborhood would write things on their hands, like boyfriend’s phone numbers, the answers of the questions for a test.

Mrs. Rosenberg became very solemn. She didn’t fuss, she didn’t yell.  She just quietly said, “Those are not my number, that’s not my number.”

I honestly don’t remember if she gave me a moon cookie I just remember going home. And after that she didn’t come to the fence and grandma didn’t talk to her and I didn’t see her in her garden. A garden where I heard her sing many, many times, a song that she would explain to me – [she sings a Hebrew Song].

I didn’t hear her singing and I didn’t see her; and the only way I knew what had happened was that I overheard Grandma Cooper telling someone over the phone, that some of Mrs. Rosenberg’s family had found her.  And then I felt bad because I had never known that Mrs. Rosenberg was lost.

APRIL 4, 1968 Memphis, TN.  Assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr

Well, time passed and I grew and Mrs. Rosenberg was practically forgotten.  And April 4th, 1968 came along.  I was a junior in high school and that Thursday was devastating and we thought that we wouldn’t have school the next day. We thought that schools would be closed and flags would fly at half mast, the way they had for John. F. Kennedy.

But we heard on the news the next morning that we had to go to school. Some of the other schools in other communities were closed, but we had to go to school there in Sharon, Pennsylvania. And our parents sent us off and when we got to school, some of us decided that we were walking out at lunch time. We couldn’t stay.

Everything felt wrong and so we got up our courage and gathered together and started to walk toward the doors where the Principal stood in front of the doors, and he looked at our faces and then he stood near the doors and he said that we, “should be ashamed of ourselves for being so disruptive” and I remember he said specifically to me, “Your mother and father would never do anything like this. I know your family.”  And I said “I’m not my mother or my father,” and the doors were opened by my friends and outdoors we went and a couple of people put the flag at half mast, which I am sure made the maintenance men very angry, and if I had not been on the strong arms of two of my bigger friends, I might not have made it down the stairs because I was shaking so badly.

As we made our way down the street called State Street, heading toward the church that most of us attended, some of us glared at the few African American students who were too afraid to leave. And we ignored those European American students who were jeering and taunting and calling us names and we ignored some of our European American friends who wanted to walk with us to the church and we told them no.

We sang “We Shall Overcome” as we made our way down that street.

Some cars passed with students from another school and they jeered and taunted us and then we heard the sounds of our friends running down the hill behind us, crying red-faced, those European American friends linking arms with us and singing “We Shall Overcome”.

And we marched down that hill, black children, white children, and as we sang, to my left somewhere on a low hill, I heard a song [she sings that same Hebrew Song] and I tried to turn, but I was propelled, held by my friends and moving forward with that song and all of our energies and emotions.

And I knew that Mrs. Rosenberg had been an old woman when I was very small, but there was that song of hers and I couldn’t see who was singing it. When we got to the church… we had not vandalized, we had not fought, we had not cursed, we had not jeered or taunted…and we walked in to the church together black children and white children and sat and cried and prayed and talked and that song kept going through my head blending with the song “We Shall Overcome”.

And I remembered Mrs. Rosenberg’s explanation of her song’s meaning …

“Oh! How wonderful it is, when we can walk together …  come together in unity and peace.”

ROSA

By Storyteller Linda Gorham

(Please be patient as the video may take a few moments to load.)

Story Summary:

 Rosa Parks is best known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her action galvanized the growing Civil Rights Movement and led to the successful Montgomery bus boycott. But even before her defiant act and the resulting boycott, Ms. Parks was dedicated to racial justice and equality. Linda Gorham tells the story of those times through the eyes of three people: Claudette Colvin (a 15-year-old who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks), James Blake (the bus driver), and Rosa Parks herself.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Rosa-Parks

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Given the climate of violence Rosa Parks faced, would you have had the courage to do what she and the other people of the Civil Rights Movement did? Have you ever stood up for something you believe in? What happened?
  2. Would you have been one of the people involved in the Civil Rights movement? How would you have helped?
  3. Many Whites thought things were unfair in this country and supported the Civil Rights Movement yet were afraid to say so to their own spouses, families or neighbors. When have you felt afraid to share your beliefs?

Resources:

  • Film – Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks by Hudson & Houston produced by
  • Teaching Tolerance and Tell the Truth Pictures.
  • Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins. In this straightforward, compelling autobiography, Rosa Parks talks candidly about the civil rights movement and her active role in it.
  • Rosa Parks: A Life by Douglas Brinkley. Historian Douglas Brinkley follows this thoughtful and devout woman from her childhood in Jim Crow Alabama through her early involvement in the NAACP to her epochal moment of courage and her afterlife as a beloved (and resented) icon of the civil rights movement.

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

“If you miss me at the back of the bus and you can’t find me no where, Come on up to the front of the bus ’cause I’ll be riding up there.” Those words come from a song written by James Neblett. And he said, in that song, that he was celebrating all the accomplishments that African-Americans had made during the 1950’s and the 1960’s in the civil rights movement. And one of the very basic accomplishments, which is unbelievable that it was not possible to do, was for African-Americans to be able to sit anywhere on a public bus. You know, for 68 years in this country, there were laws called Jim Crow laws. And those laws, well, they were mandated to separate the races. Now, they did a good job of keeping the races separate but they sure didn’t do a good job of keeping things equal. Separate but equal, they called it. No way. Not at all.

Well, all that changed in 1955, especially on the buses. The buses, you know, they used to have the front rows for the white people and African-Americans had to sit in the back and if the white section filled up and a white person was standing, well, don’t you know, an entire row of African-Americans would have to get up and move to the back. It was totally unfair.

But in 1955 that’s when Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old woman, from Montgomery, Alabama, she was ordered to stand up on the bus and give up her seat. And Rosa Parks refused. Now I will tell you, her dignity stood up. Her commitment to ending bus segregation stood up. Her inner spirit and, I’m sure, her soul stood up. So, Rosa Parks could make the difficult decision to remain sitting down. Now, there have been many books written about that day and the ensuing year. But I think Rosa Parks said it best herself. So, from excerpts from her autobiography and the many interviews that she had, I’m going to tell you Rosa Parks’ story in mostly her words.

When that bus driver came back at me, waving his arms, yelling at me saying, “Make it light on yourself. Give up your seat.” I was ready. I was not going to give up my seat. I had prepared for that moment for a long time.

You see, it was December 1st, 1955. Ha! The newspaper reporter said that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired.  Ha. I’ll tell you what I was tired of! I was tired of seeing men, women, and children disrespected because of the color of their skin. I was tired of Jim Crow segregation laws. I was tired of being oppressed. You see, my feet were not tired, my soul was. The United States of America was supposed to be the land of the free; the land of equality. But it seems to me, the only people who are equal, well, are people with white skin. And I too am an American and I too deserve respect.

Hmm. Those newspaper reporters… well, they said that I was just a seamstress. No, I am a tailor. I work downtown for the Montgomery Ward Department store. I tailor men’s clothes so they fit nice. I do a great job! But that’s not all I do. You see, I’m also a volunteer secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We call it the NAACP. I’m also the head of their youth group. I will tell you, many times I’ve sat in those meetings taking the minutes and I hear about all the horrible crimes against Negro people. White hate crimes we call them. Where Negroes are cheated, and abused, and harassed, and murdered, and lynched, and much, much more.

You know that young girl, Claudette Colvin? She was 15 years old when she didn’t give up her seat on the bus. Oh, I was very proud of her. What she did was hard and brave. She could have gotten killed for that small act of defiance. I invited her to talk to my youth group and we talked about her case many times at the NAACP meetings. And you know, after hearing what she did and after thinking of all that I’ve been through, well, I’ve made up my mind I was never again going to give up my seat on any bus.

Now I will tell you, I rode that bus to work, five mornings a week, five evenings a week, four weeks out of every month. And each time I try to sit as high up as I could in the Negro section and each time I said to myself, “If I’m asked to give up my seat, I will NOT.”

Hmm. When that day came, and that bus driver came running after me waving his arms, I rapped my determination around me like a quilt on a cold winter’s night. And when the police came on that bus, I looked up at one of them and I said, “Why do you push us around?” And I’ll never forget what he said to me.

He said, “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.”

Now I will tell you, they didn’t push me around like they did with Claudette. They were very polite. One took my purse, one took my shopping bag, and they escorted me off the bus. And once off the bus, we got to the squad car, and they opened the door, and I got inside. And actually, once inside, they gave me back my purse and my personal belongings.

On the way to City Hall, one of those policemen turned around and he looked at me and he said, “Why didn’t you give up your seat when the bus driver asked you to?” I didn’t tell him a thing. I was silent all the way to City Hall.

Now let me tell you, after my arrest, the NAACP called for a boycott of the buses. And all the Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama who had been silent or who had been afraid or who had been fearful or who had been angry, we all came together. And we said, “We’re going to boycott the buses until the laws change. We’re just not going to ride.”

Hmm. You know, there were 17,000 Negroes that rode those buses every day and they made up more than three-quarters of the ridership. And when we stopped riding those buses, the bus company lost money. It was hard on them. But let me tell you that, was nothing compared to how hard it was on us.

We walked. We walked everywhere. We walked to church. We walked to school. We walked to work. We walked to visit friends. We walked to buy food. Now, the NAACP did set up carpools – 300 of them. And they did run on a regular basis and that was helpful, especially for those who were older or infirmed. Most of us, we just walked. No matter what the weather. No matter how we felt. No matter how many bundles we had to carry. No matter how many children we had in tow. We walked and not for a day, and not for a week, and not for a month. We walked for 381 days. Three hundred and eighty-one days.

Well, finally after all that walking, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional. Look, I have to tell you, what took them so long. Well, in any case, the   Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama walked for 381 days so that Negroes throughout the United States of America could sit anywhere they wanted on any trolley, any train, and any bus. It wasn’t easy.

DR. KING CAME TO TOWN

by Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

For a print friendly version, click here:  Dr-King-Came-to-Town

Full Transcript:

It was Friday, August 12th, 1966 and Dr. Martin Luther King was marching through my Southwest Side Chicago neighborhood, having an Open Housing March. Now he was marching down 79th Street, that was four blocks from my home on 84th Street. But still, all the lights were out in my house, the windows, the doors were locked, all the draperies were closed. And it was hot. August Dog Days hot in that tiny little living room. And I tried to peek around the curtain, take a look. But my grandmother was like, “Su-san, don’t look! Don’t look!” I said, “Ma, the marchers are four blocks away. It is not going to hurt.”

She was like, “Su-san, the priest said so. The priest said, ‘Don’t go out till the marchers are gone.’ ”

I, kind of, rolled my eyes and seeing that this was having no effect, the priest, she tried the politicians. “You know, Mr. Burke said too. Mr. Burke said, “No going out.’ ” Now, Mr. Burke was our precinct captain and he had gone house to house as he had been told to do by the Democratic Party, telling all of us to stay inside during that Open Housing March. And my grandparents had said, of course, they’ll keep us kids inside and they went back up to their sitting room. And I noticed Mr. Burke came in and whispered something to my dad.

And my dad started to walk out with them and I was like, “What’s happening?” And he, my dad, came back in and said how Mr. Bourke’s rounding up some of the men. There’s some new construction over on 79th Street. There’s some bricks they’re going to put a tarp over or remove the brick so nobody throws them at the marchers tomorrow. “That’s all we need,” my dad said. “People throwing bricks at the marchers tomorrow.  But don’t say anything to your grandma. Don’t scare your grandparents.” Well, he didn’t say anything about scaring me. And I was scared.

That summer, earlier in 1966, there had been race riots all over the country. I mean people had been killed in these riots. Those days I go to sleep with racial conflicts from the 10 O’clock News meshing with my dreams and I wake up expecting to see that the sidewalks have buckled. I mean, really part of me expected the whole city to blow. But with my grandparents, I was total calmness. I said, “Ma, it is hot in here. I’m just going to step out, sit on the front porch, get some fresh air. It’s not healthy in here. I’ll be right back.”

“No,” she said. And my grandparents were sitting at the dining room table, which was only a few steps away from our little living room. And she started moaning, “Oh, what do the coloreds want? What do they want?” My grandfather knew the answer.

He said, “First they want our jobs. Now they want our houses.”

Well, I had had enough. I started to walk to the door. She called again, “No, the priests, the politicians, they say don’t go out!”

I go, “Ma, I’m just going to sit on the porch.”

She goes, “What do they want? What do they want?”

My grandpa said, “They want everything.” I had had enough. I walked out the front door.

And as I did, I felt this kind of strange mixture of shame and triumph. Shame because right then I just hated my grandparents. I was so embarrassed by their prejudice. But I also felt this triumph because I’d done it. I mean, Dr. King’s people were marching down our streets and I’d… marched out my front door. At 16, it was the best I could do.

When I sat down on the porch, I was so surprised to see that the block was empty. There was this eerie silence. I mean, usually on a hot summer day, these front porches would be packed with people because we had no air conditioning back then. People would just be sitting there like drooping flags, begging for a breeze. It’s like a neutron bomb had gone off. Only the buildings remained.

And I sat there… and I could remember the last few Sundays there had been Open Housing Marches at Marquette Park. I remember seeing the TV cameras showing this teenager with a, with a, a band on his arm that said, “Death before dishonor.” And this boy picked up a heavy metal sewer cap. Picked it up and tossed it at the marchers like it was a frisbee. And then his friend picked up a rock and he pitched it into the crowd.  And it, it swerved through the air and then it sliced right across the forehead of a nun…a nun! And then the cameras showed us some of the streets alongside Market Park where the demonstration was happening. And there were some demonstrators, the marchers, cars were set on fire. And then these lagoons that were in Market Park, it showed pictures of groups of white men pressing their bodies up against the marchers, car… just… just pressing into the steel hulks of their cars. Grunting and pushing them right into the lagoons, the tails of the car waving as they sank.

And then it cut over the pictures of the marchers themselves. They were walking shoulder to shoulder to crisscross style. Martin Luther King was in the middle of them. And there were all these people around them.  Like this white people screaming, like making this thin crevice of hate they just had to march through. All the time, shouting, “Coloreds go home! Go back to where you came from! Go to your own kind! Go home!”

But on my street, it was silence like at Mass, at the consecration, where everything got still and quiet. That’s what it felt like but it didn’t feel very holy. It’s like I couldn’t even sit still. So I looked at the bay window to see if my grandma was looking out at me and she wasn’t. The curtains were still drawn. So I got up and walked to Ashburn Park, just three doors down from my house, a lot smaller than Market Park. There was this black and white striped guardrail to keep people from driving into the park. And I just sat there for a moment. It’s like I couldn’t even sit at my house. I didn’t know what to do with my nervous energy. And as I sat there, I suddenly felt this this wave of something like this, this hum of something in the air. And I looked up and there’s this massive swamp… green helicopters. It was the army. The army was in my neighborhood. And then they flew over by 79th Street. And I kept straining to see if I could hear something from 79th Street but I couldn’t. And I wondered were my neighbors like the, the demonstrators at Market Park, the white people there? Were they shouting obscenities, throwing rocks? Had people found those bricks that Mr. Burke and my dad tried to hide?  Was there violence going on? I couldn’t tell. Or were they just behind their locked doors like the priest and the politicians had said, just wishing it would all go away?  I don’t know where anybody was.

And then, down the middle of my street, came this gray metallic truck. And on top of the truck was a flag and I closed my eyes to make it go away. But when I opened my eyes, there it was again. Red flag, white circle in the middle, black swastika in the middle. A Nazi flag. And next to the flag was a loud speaker that was blaring out this voice saying, “White power rally! White power rally! White power rally! Next Sunday! Noon! Market Park! Next Sunday! Noon.”

I mean, was this very clipped, fact-giving voice as if all of the persuading had already been done. And as that truck came towards me, it stopped right in front of me. And this man in black leather pants and jacket and what looked like slicked back black leather hair, came running at me. And I could see on one lapel, he had this, We Want Wallace button, on the other side it said Up With the KKK. And he handed me this leaflet. And I looked down and there were these people in white robes. The Ku Klux Klan. And when I looked up again the man was gone. And then off their truck went again, fact-giving voice just assuming people would want the information.

As I sat there it was like again, my, my block, was still and empty. It was as if the air were thin. It was as if the KKK and the army and the marchers had all come into neighborhoods and stole all the air molecules. I couldn’t breathe.

And I thought about my church. I mean, my church said to love everybody. I thought about the Dr. King poster I had up on my bedroom wall. I thought about my friends of color that I had just met that year in this youth group that met in downtown Chicago. I thought about how much I would love them to live by me. And I said to myself so I would know myself, “I want black people to live wherever they want to. I want everybody to be free.” But deep inside, I felt of two minds because I’d never seen one example of where black people moving in didn’t mean white people moving out. If open housing worked, I mean, black people could live in my neighborhood but I knew that all the people in my neighborhood would be gone. It wouldn’t be my neighborhood anymore.

And I sat there and I, I looked at that Nazi truck now. It was on the other side of the park and I saw it weaving up and down my neighborhood. And I thought, as I sat on that black and white guardrail, that I felt absolutely torn in two. It was like the city’s dividing line, that white neighborhood, the black line, color line, we crossed every month or so in Chicago;  now it felt like it was in my body, cutting my body in two. That’s what I felt. Torn in two.