I was listening to an NPR story resently on Morning Edition. The program talked about “The Race Card Project” and that it was collecting peoples experiences during the 1960’s period of the civil rights movement, distilled into 6 words only. George Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, was only three years older than I was that fateful day when her father stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama campus, Tuscaloosa, blocking the egress of two black students, declaring his six words “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Memories came flooding back and my six words rose to my lips immediately..small white girl watching heroes march.
I was ten when Martin Luther King led a peaceful march through my small midwestern neighborhood south of Chicago Illinois. My parents had left my younger brother and I in the care of our german babysitter and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt was stern but kind, an avid gardener who introduced me to gooseberries, an exotic fruit I had never heard of, and taught me how to make a flaky pie crust..my small hands clumsily trying to coast greatness out of recalcitrant dough.
It was late afternoon when I started to hear singing off in the distance. We were in her garden,on our knees, my brother Mrs. Schmidt and I, and her head snapped up and cocked to one side- she began listening intently. She got up, brushing soil from her skirt and our knees and hurried us inside, bending over his easy chair to have a somber whisper in Mr. Schmidts ear. The stately white haired gentleman, always a bit reserved and distant, yet ready to include my brother in his woodworking projects or put me on his knee for a story, slowly stood up and walked to the front closet door. He reach in and pulled out a long object wrapped in a blanket. I could see the muscles in his right forearm tense with its weight as his left hand slowly unwrapped the gleaming rifle. The barrel was dark and oily and the wood burnished with a depth I can still see.
I had never seen a gun in real life, only on the Lone Ranger as he and Tonto kept the wild west free of bandits and “bad guys..”. Mr. Schmidt raised the shotgun to his shoulder, looked down it’s barrel, opened it somehow, put some things inside it…. my child’s mind not really understanding what he was doing. He lowered the rifle to his side and nodded to Mrs. Smith.
By now the singing was much stronger. Mrs. Smith shepherded us out onto their small front porch, the awning keeping the sun out of our eyes as I saw, coming up the street, a sea of mostly what were, to me at the time, colored people. With Mr. Schmidts strong hand on my brothers shoulder, and Mrs. Schmidts on mine, we watched the group come abreast of us.
Mr. Schmidt raised his gun to his hip, pointing the rifle towards the crowd. Nothing was said, but I could feel the tension and fear in the adults as we stood there watching. I was old enough to understand a little of what was happening. I knew my parents and their friends told jokes about “the negroes” and that although there were none in my school, they did live somewhere in my town, somewhere we never went.
My mother and father would argue from time to time; my mother seemed to support their cause, my father disagreeing. They weren’t serious fights, but they seemed to stand on different sides of some invisible fence. These memories came flooding back to me, these late night discussions I could hear drifting down the halls of our small home as I lay in bed at night, when, fifteen years later, I married my husband of now 35 years, a black man. The assumed support of my mother dissolved into hatred and bigotry, an estranged family. Fathers surprising acceptance came much earlier. Grandchildren healing the rift.
As I stood there on that porch that day, seeing dark eyes turned towards this small group of white people standing, armed, obviously against them-I saw no anger, or fear. I saw peace, and love. People smiled at me, I smiled back. Mrs. Schmidt saw and squeezed my shoulder harder shaking her head slowly “NO.”
I smiled anyway. The smiles were warm and open, sometimes sad, sometimes serious, sometimes joyous. I stood a bit taller watching them, and something was born in me. A resistance to wrong, a realization that injustice did not have to be tolerated. An incipient thought that we are all connected, we are all one.
I will never forget that day. I was a small white girl, watching heroes march.