This is my mom’s story. She’s posted it before, but I asked her to lend it to me so I could post it here for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She assented, and here it is as a guest post.
I wanted to post it because of this on the Daily Kos. What I had to say about that I’ll say here, as pre-amble to my mother’s story.
This is precisely why Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson speaking how he never saw black people talking about how bad they had it is infuriating.
Mr. Robertson, with no due respect, you are white. I don’t care how poor you were. I don’t care how shoulder-to-shoulder you felt you worked with black people before civil rights. They did not tell you of their experience because it wasn’t safe. Because you were and are white. Because by definition no matter how poor you were and how much you did the same work you had rights that the black people did not have, legally. You could kill a black man, or rape a black woman just because. Just fucking because. And nothing would happen to you. And everything would happen to them. And they knew it.
Dr. King did not just give a speech. He did not just march. He taught the black people that when they stood together they were free, because nobody can own your mind unless you let them.
The “hard” lesson I learned as a child about race relations? Never, not even once, use the word “boy” when referring to a black male.
I did not understand why. I could not understand why. My parents simply told me to suck it up and to never do that.
I’ll take that over always say ma’am and sir, never look a white person in the eyes, always walk single file, never too many at once, head down and eyes on the ground, take off your hat, and the many, many, many, many other rules that black people had to follow to somehow superstitiously ward off the White Beserk that found them anyway.
As a white person of that era, the worst that would happen if I screwed up? I’d make a person feel less than. I might, if I was especially unlucky, have a black person yell at me. A black man would never raise their fist to a white child. Certainly not a white girl child. That would be death. Even in the 70’s and 80’s.
So with that, with my recollection of what it meant to grow up slightly post-Civil Rights Era, here is my mother’s recollection of one of her experiences right in the midst of the Civil Rights Era.
The Idiot’s Bus Trip
Somehow, this story is tied together with buses, libraries and God.
Let me introduce the God-thing first. While raising me, my mother would often try to debate various topics with me. She wanted to sort of try out ideas on me in a verbal way. One of her topics of choice was God and why he does not exist and why the Catholic Church is corrupt and bad for people, all through history.
Nowadays, you can find a lot of literature on this topic, but in the late 50s, it was verboten. My mother was anti-church and felt that anyone who said they had faith was close to sub-moronic and needing someone to lead them around, namely the church. She felt that the church had caused horrible harm historically and could cite many examples (to my complete boredom).
So, when it came time for me to start developing my own personality, and to do the nest kicking parental rebellion thing, I think I subconsciously picked the ‘God-thing’ to do the opposite of what my mother advocated.
Another flow of information was coming in to me from my library adventures. I came across the biography of Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain. It was a sort of mystery revelation for me — answering the question about why someone would choose to be a contemplative monk. I saw the historical thread that many not so dumb people had followed this life path, and I wanted to know why.
And the final flow of pressure was coming from Mrs. Warner, the woman next door. She had had four boys. She had homemaking and crafting skills that she had no daughter to teach. My grandmother also had these skills, except in one area – she was not good at knitting or crocheting. I mentioned this once to Mrs. Warner and she offered to teach me how to crochet and knit. Once Mrs. Warner had me in her living room, she asked me if I went to church. I told her no because my mother was divorced. Mrs. Warner offered to take me with her to Mass on Sundays, since I was baptized a Catholic.
So the next Sunday I rose early as the rest of the house slept, dressed and went with Mrs. Warner to church. Well, as they say, the ‘bells and the smells’ hooked me. I was curious about this religious thing that had almost 2000 years of history and tradition. I knew that it was the center of many people’s lives, with a large effect on cultural and political decision making both public and personal.
I decided to try on the belief structure and see if it fit me. It did. It filled a nice niche in my personality and cognitive processes. Having someone else “be responsible for the big things if I would be responsible for the little things in my life” was comforting.
Trouble was, I had to come home from church and face my mother and her lectures. Finally, I got through to her and we agreed that this would not be a topic of conversation between us any more as long as I kept it out of her house. No church people coming to her house. No priest coming to tell her she was living in sin.
To celebrate this small victory, Mrs. Warner gave me a missal. This is a combination prayer book and liturgical guide to the fifty-two weekly Sunday and Holy Day masses. I was not a full participant in the services since I had never received instructions for the sacraments. This added to the mysticalness of it all and added a touch of romantic longing. This missal was geared for the young woman and had about 60 pages of do’s and don’t’s. It was a general guide to how to stay a virgin, what were venial and mortal sins, and how to make a good confession.
I tried out that contemplative stuff laying face down on my darken bedroom floor for hours keeping an all night vigil. I felt very spiritual and holy afterwards.
My sophomore year of high school ended. The newspapers were full of the civil rights happenings in the South. I wanted to be on a bus going south to help register blacks to vote. I wanted to be a champion of good in the world, holding the torch of truth and love and righteousness.
The family budget was tight that summer, so instead of the usual Western Airline flight from Oakland to Burbank for my annual summer visit to my grandmother, I was going to take the bus. The Greyhound bus was a lower class mode of transportation in those days. The trip route was nine hours of driving down the central part of the state to Bakersfield and then through the Tehachipi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin to Burbank.
I packed up and put on my white gloves. Yes, girls and women wore hats and gloves when they were outside their home. I had my missal tucked into my white purse. Yes, girls and women used white purses, belts and shoes from Easter to Labor Day every year. I was wearing a blue gingham dress with a full crinoline half slip to make the bottom half of my dress stand out 20 inches from my legs. When I sat down, I had to tuck the dress tightly under my knees to keep it from raising up to my shoulder height.
There I was, a fourteen, soon to be fifteen year old, teen age girl, traveling alone on a Greyhound bus for 9 hours in June of 1960. I had made a solemn promise that I would not speak to any strangers, would not open my purse in public view, or would not display my wallet and it’s contents to anyone. I was a good girl and a holy virgin to boot. Watch out world.
Now comes the sad and stupid part. That whole bus trip, I made a black man uncomfortable and miserable in my rashness to show solidarity with the civil rights struggle.
Being a good little humble virtuous self-effacing girl, I waited to go into the bus until the last minute, so that others could pick and choose where they would sit. Finally, I was the last to board. The only seat available was at the back of the bus, next to the small little toilet compartment. Already sitting on the back bench seat was a 50ish greying black man in a suit with his hat on his knee.
I took the middle of the bench, tucked my skirt tight and pulled my missal out of my purse. I opened it up and read for nine hours. The black man could not move, he was pinned to the corner not daring to spread his legs. He sweated, twitched, moved his hat from one knee to another. Periodically the bus would stop for rest breaks, once in Fresno and once again in Bakersfield. Both places were typically sweltering with temperatures in the mid 90s. I was suffering from my traditional nausea and headache from the heat.
My eyes were killing me. Nice girls did not wear sunglasses in those days. We wore piles of deodorant and dress shields to cover our armpits and absorb our sweat. These dress shields were another sort of personal hair shirt. They were elastic things that hooked around and below your bra.
So there I was, gloved, hatted, gingham dress, full skirt and dress shield straps that needed constant tending. My feet were swelling from the heat, my eyes were popping out of my head in pain and the smell from the toilet next to me was making me woozy. So instead of getting off the bus at the rest stops. I sat in my seat. When people got on and off the bus at the stops, freeing up seats having overhead cool air vents, I did not move.
The black man sitting next to me did not move. I think he was petrified to talk to me and I would occasionally see the eyes of the bus driver flick over me and the man next to me. One time, the bus-driver actually came back and spoke to me. He told me that seats were available in the front of the bus. Those seats were cooler and would be more comfortable.
Oops, that was the wrong word to use. I was on an anti-comfort campaign. I was sacrificing and giving all my pain and discomfort to God to make up for the sins of all the bad people in the South.
I told the bus-driver I was fine and he shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
I made it to Burbank, the black man sitting next to me. Finally, when we stopped at the station, I turned and offered my hand to the man. Startled, he took my damp white gloved hand, we shook hands and I got up and left the poor man alone. I felt so righteous and good. And I was so sick from the heat. I slept for 3 days after I landed at my grandmother’s house.
Only years later, much wiser, I remember this incident. I cringe to realize it was an idiotic thing I did in the name of religion. I, too, had my civil rights bus ride, but I did no good by it. I made a man fearful and uncomfortable for 9 hours. What a misdirected idiot I was.
In my old age, my religion has synthesized down to a simple sort of ripple philosophy — do no harm and do what you can to add a little beauty and kindness back into the world, just letting it ripple away with no expectation of return.