Here’s some footage from the early 1960s, showing what it was really like at some of the larger demonstrations. The clips culminate with the August 28, 1963, March for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Our kids and grandkids need to see this. Thank you, Mavis Staples, for keeping the spirit alive and relevant for almost 50 years.
After my sophomore year at the University of Maryland, I got married and moved to DC, where I spent the next 11 years. Washington DC was a predominantly black city at that time and Len and I were white interlopers, poor ones no less.
My husband occasionally sat in as a musician at clubs and, one night in 1964 or 1965 (?), he played at a coffee house with three friends of ours, all black. (I was about 20 years old, at the time.) The bass player and singer followed us home, where the four of us stayed up all night listening to jazz, drinking coffee and talking.
The next morning, we all hopped into our old car and headed out to another musician’s house, deep into Northern Virginia. I don’t remember where he lived, but anything more than two miles outside the District was the Deep South. I drove, the bass player sat up front with me and the singer sat in the back talking to my husband.
We drove about 15 miles, part of it on a country four-lane, before I noticed a car following us. I didn’t think much of it at first, but mentioned it and the bass player suggested I slow down to let the car pass us. I did, but when our two cars were neck and neck, the other driver slowed to my pace.
I glanced over and saw two young white guys in the front seat, one driving and one holding a pistol up to his eye with two hands, aiming it at me out the open window.
At first, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I turned back to face the road, stared straight ahead, mumbled something like “Don’t look to your left” and slowed down, hoping they would speed ahead. They didn’t.
We went in tandem like this for a mile or two, slowing down, speeding up, with that gun never losing its potential to blow my head off. Eventually, they must have been satisfied they could shoot us if they felt like it, because they laughed, stomped on the gas and sped off.
I was so shaken I couldn’t drive any more, so the bass player took the wheel. He made a U-turn and took us back to the relative safety of DC. We knew that not only had we dodged four bullets, but we had avoided getting killed in a place where no would have cared enough to find out how or why.
If I didn’t get the message of hate at the College Park diner, I got it that day in Virginia, loud and clear. I made up my mind on the way home that I would never doubt the violence that goes hand in hand with racial hatred, and would never, ever turn away from it again.
Thus began and ended my brief career as a sitter-in, not because I lost my interest in the mission of the civil rights movement, but because I saw how important it was. So important, it deserved better than what happened to me that day on Route 1. There better ways for me to serve than from a county jail or grave. This experience showed me how quickly things can get out of hand when you’re dealing with a person’s emotional investment in a socially accepted tradition. I also saw now that God would be on my side, but he’d be the only one there. Apparently, I couldn’t count on my fellow activists, the CORE observation team OR the police to protect me from unwarranted harm. No, the rules of the game had changed. The campus CORE chapter grew, slowly. (The immediate problem – public accommodations – would be solved by state legislation in 1964, shortly before the July 2 passage of the US Civil Rights Act, which outlawed most racial discrimination even if it didn't have the teeth to enforce it.) By 1962 and 1963, rental housing was the next big issue, followed by a push to fully integrate colleges and universities in the metro-DC area. I continued attending CORE meetings on campus for another 1 ½ years, just didn't do sit-ins. Instead, I wrote op-ed pieces, represented CORE at meetings of other organizations on campus, and kept up on the group’s activities at other schools. In other words, this was my first job in public relations, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
Don’t misunderstand. I may have been only a teenager, but I wasn’t afraid to die for a good cause. Providing a target for a man who wanted to vent just didn't seem like a good enough reason to die or even go to jail.
If I were to build a criminal record, let it be for something important, like guaranteeing someone’s right to medical care or an education.
Hey, if I got killed, I got killed, but let me die protecting someone from a lynching, or making sure he or she was free to exercise the right to vote.
And that is exactly what my friend Jim Reeb did in Selma, several years later. But, that’s another story.