by Charlene C. Duline
Ten days ago I left for a visit to the South with my sidekick, Dolores. I had never had a desire to visit the "South" as I thought of it. I was born in Kentucky and I have visited several times, but for no more than 3 days at the longest, and I could not wait to leave. I remember visiting as a 12 year old and going to a movie theatre with some friends. The clerk at the theatre window took an unusually long time to wait on us and I let her know that she had customers - us! I noticed that my friends hastily apologized and told the clerk that I was the grand-daughter of Creamus Small, a well-known and fairly respected black man in those parts. Later, my friends chastised me for speaking up. "This is the 'South' they said. That meant nothing to me - then.
Much later I learned about the lynching of blacks in the South, and even later we learned that lynchings were still happening. In 1955 the nation was jolted from its apathy by the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 yr. old teenager from Chicago. Emmett was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at a white woman. He was kidnapped from his great-uncle's home, beaten, shot in the head, and thrown into a river. Emmett's uncle and another black man risked their lives to identify the two white men who snatched Emmett from his family. Both men were smuggled out of Mississippi before they could be killed in retaliation. Emmett's body was returned to Chicago where his mother insisted that the casket be left open for the world to see what had been done to her son. The two accused killers were found not guilty by an all-white male jury. Later they bragged about killing Emmett.
I used to hear family members and other adults talking about what they experienced when they visited relatives in the "South." They talked about the speed traps, the whites-only bathrooms, restaurants where they were refused service, having to enter public establishments through the back doors because only whites could use the front doors, the way whites spoke to them, and being extra careful of how they looked at or spoke to a white woman. None of what I heard from them made me want to visit the South. Somehow, as black people do, those talking about the South always laughed at the "close calls," or at their sly way of talking to whites in authority in the South. They never seemed angry. To them it was simply a matter of surviving in the South.
In the '60s, when all hell broke loose, I saw and felt the hate on the faces of whites as little black children tried to enter so-called white schools. I used to wonder what kind of people they were. And then my friend, Dolores, wanted me to visit the South with her. Frankly, I wanted to visit some southern cities to see the memorials to those who died during the civil rights struggle, but I decided long ago that I would have to see them on television or in books because I had no plans to subject myself to the whims of people who judged me solely on the basis of my skin color. During my career I had met and worked with leaders of nations, the rich and the poor, and saw no need to subject myself to any people who thought of me and mine as little more than animals. I let Dolores convince me that things had "changed down south" and I would be pleasantly surprised. We headed to Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Good grief, I thought, if I survive this...
The days before we left, we found the planets unaligned. I had problems with my iPad and iPhone. Apple said it was an ATT problem and ATT said it was an Apple problem, and I was thoroughly frustrated. Dolores insisted that I was upset because I didn't want to go on the trip. Truth be told, I didn't. And the problems with my electronics only added to my distress.
We headed to New Orleans, a city I knew and loved. That night we stopped in Fultondale, Alabama. I never thought I would be in Alabama! Fultondale is just outside of Birmingham. Birmingham - where four little black girls died when the KKK bombed their church. As we drove through Tuscaloosa - I was flooded with memories. Next came Meridian, Mississippi. Ole Ms! Jasper County - jasper brings to mind lovely gemstones thought to promote healing and relaxation, not so Jasper County - the site of KKK activity in firebombings. Memories came flooding back.
I thought of the three young men - James Chaney (a black Mississippian), Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (both white, from New York) - murdered in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi (just outside of Meridian, MS) because they were helping black people to register to vote. They were arrested by local police, released to KKK members who beat and killed them. They went missing on June 21, 1964, but their bodies were not found until August 4, 1964, buried in an earthen dam. Their killers were identified and went to trial. They were always acquitted by all-white juries. Finally, in 2005, on the 41st anniversary of their deaths, one man was convicted on charges brought by federal (not state!) officials. Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year old white supremacist, and a part-time Baptist minister, was sentenced to 60 years in prison on three counts of manslaughter rather than murder which is what the prosecutor sought. The frail old man sat passively in his wheelchair breathing through an oxygen tube. The three men he killed (others implicated had died) were not allowed 41 years of life, not allowed to complete their education, marry, have children and grand-children. No, Killen and other members of the KKK had enjoyed 41 years of a good life after orchestrating the deaths of the three young men. I know our Lord has forgiven him; it might take awhile for the families, friends and colleagues of the three who were killed, to do the same. Blacks and whites died to give us the privilege of voting, to eat at the same restaurants, to use the same facilities, and to have the same education in schools as whites had always enjoyed. Without the help of some caring whites, I doubt that segregation would have ended as soon as it did. We owe a debt of thanks to a number of blacks and whites who gave their lives in the name of civil rights for all. May they rest in peace.
In New Orleans we stayed with an old friend of Dolores', Sr. Carla, at the Ursuline Sisters Convent. What a building. What a history the Ursulines have in New Orleans. This is the home of the Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor (Quick Help). They have a huge school with students from Kindergarten through 12th grade; impressive buildings and gardens. There was some damage from Hurricane Katrina, but their beautiful stained glass windows were spared, thanks they say to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. We visited the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. They have my book, and a lot of material about Dr. John Crowley during his years in Selma, Alabama. Dolores promised to send more materials for their Center. We visited the French Quarter, ate delicious beignets, and walked around a bit even though the weather was blistering hot.
That evening we went out to dinner with Sr. Carla, Sr. Donna and two other Ursuline nuns. Sr. Carla wanted me to tell them all about my Peace Corps and Foreign Service experiences. She encouraged them to ask questions. After they asked two or three questions, and I answered them, they were off talking about things and people they all knew. Sr. Carla was chagrined. I understood the dynamics perfectly. It's comparable to someone inviting you to their home to see their vacation pictures. After a few minutes your eyes glaze over and you find yourself talking about more mundane things. So after a few minutes of hearing about the Burma bridge in the middle of my village of Quiquijana, they quickly - emphasis on quickly - moved on to things, things they could relate to.
A couple of days later we left for Biloxi, MS enroute to Dauphin Island. Dolores told me that in the past Dauphin Island did not allow blacks on the island. She related that a black couple who were friends of Carol, who owns the only bed and breakfast home on the island told her that when two black friends visited her, the husband enjoyed working in the garden. A neighbor came over to ask Carol why she was bringing blacks to the island. Carol laughed at the neighbor and said, "That man is a federal judge. You'd better hope that you never have to go before him in court!" They thought she was importing blacks to work on Dauphin Island! Carol and I hit it off perfectly! She is a delight! She is as real as it gets! She has worked in Central America, been a nurse, and cares for those less fortunate. She is warm, welcoming and generous with her time, her home, and her sharing.
Dolores also shared that years ago her husband, who had established a Catholic church on the island, took some black kids from Selma to the island. As they walked along the beach, Dr. Crowley was told that blacks were not allowed on "our" beaches. He was taken aback, but left immediately with the kids.
We went out to dinner one night and as I approached the restaurant I saw a sign on the door: "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." Wow! I wondered what that meant. I was afraid to ask. Later I mentioned it to Dolores. She said it meant they didn't want people coming in barefoot or without tops. Hmmm, why didn't the sign just say that?
We had a delightful visit to a dress shop where the owner, Marti, remembered Dolores from four years ago when Marti helped her select an elegant outfit to wear to a movie premier in Selma where Dolores' husband was being honored posthumously. Marti is a lovely, gracious, and giving woman.
On our last night, we had dinner in Gulfport, Mississippi at our hotel. Near the end of dinner, Carol's husband, George, handed me a newspaper clipping showing a photo of him and Bull Connor, the infamous Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. George was holding several police dogs as they lunged at a terrified black civil rights marcher. My heart wept. I didn't trust myself to speak. I could barely hear George saying that was a different time, and they were basically ignorant of what they were doing. I said nothing; I simply handed the picture back to him. I could not help but wonder why he showed me the picture. Dolores thought it was by way of an apology - of sorts. The next day we said goodbye to Carol and George. George hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. Dolores was floored. She said she was surprised that he would hug, let alone kiss, a black woman. I laughed. I am beyond being surprised anymore!
Despite the wounds to my spirit, I have come to see that our culture has come far in judging people by the goodness of their hearts and not the color of their skin. I saw blacks working at hotel desks, eating in restaurants, laughing and talking; doing what we take for granted, but what for them was a long, hard fought fight. I enjoyed each and every person I met during those days down South. Yes, I will visit the South again. No longer do the names of Biloxi, Meridian, Jasper, Birmingham, or Tuscaloosa cause my heart to skip a beat. I know that God made fools and babies, and He protects both, and He loves both. How can I do any less?