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.
The following Saturday, I left my dorm early, signing out for College Park. For whatever reason, I didn’t tell anyone where I was going or what I was doing.
As instructed, I wore my Sunday dress, little black heels and all-purpose trench coat. My hair was done up in a neat French twist (remember that style?).
CORE sent us out two to three in a car, plus driver. One car contained only CORE reps, so they could bail us out if necessary, I suppose, or act as witnesses to whatever happened.
The first time out, I was sent to the Little Tavern, in College Park. Frankly, I never wanted to eat there in the first place, but it was important to integrate any business that was part of a national chain. Three of us ordered hamburgers and sodas. No problem.
The next weekend, on my second time out, things got a bit dicey.
First of all, there was a young guy at the church who was itching to spend the night in jail. He had a guitar with him, and said he wanted to sing in jail. I just hoped I didn’t get stuck going out with this jerk, but I did.
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I was 17 and new to the University of Maryland when I saw a sign posted on a bulletin board announcing a training session in non-violent action at a nearby church. Now that I was away from home, I could consider doing things like this. After all, I WAS a college freshman, and it WAS 1961. Contrary to my parents’ hopes and dreams for me to get a well-rounded education, meet some young lawyer at college and marry into comfort, I grew up fully expecting to save the world from injustice, infectious disease and bad music. Not necessarily in that order. Four years of reading the progressive Methodist Student Movement's (now defunct) motive magazine plus high school social studies classes taught by two avowed socialists had radicalized me even more than I knew, but just as much as my parents suspected.
Not surprisingly, my zeal for justice was tied to religion, a big part of my life. Not only was I active in a very liberal Protestant church, but I got even more fired up to right all wrongs -- by osmosis -- through through my part-time job as an pianist/organist and choir accompanist for several churches. That was how I earned money for college. First, a little history lesson. In spite of its reputation for religious tolerance and enlightenment, parts of the state of Maryland may as well have been in the Deep South in 1961. Centuries of tradition forbade people of color to use the toilets at many gas stations or to eat at some restaurants in town. Nobody had to tell them, but little reminders like the one above were hung on the wall, just in case. If Black people wanted to eat, they could go to a restaurant’s kitchen door for carry out. If they needed a toilet, they had to find a service station willing to accommodate them. Earlier that year, the ambassador to the US from Chad (who wasn’t up on the tradition) had been refused table service at a roadside diner in Maryland. He filed a angry grievance with the State Department, without hesitation. Embarrassed, Pres. Kennedy pressured restaurants and gas stations along major federal highways (including the east-west US 40 and north-south US 1, which cut through the University campus) to be more accommodating to foreign dignitaries. Travelers were advised to wear traditional dress, so they’d be recognized. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) jumped on this humiliating event, sending out students from Bowie State College (then, a black school) to test service at restaurants up and down the Maryland highways. The Route 40 Freedom Rides were widely publicized, designed to pressure business owners into serving anyone who came in, whether they were black, white, dressed in African garb, or not. A few months of Freedom Rides kicked off the eventual desegregation of public accommodations up and down the state, long before there was law undoing the traditions. That happened in 1964, shortly before the passage of the US Civil Rights Act. There were some holdouts in restaurant apartheid, however, even in College Park, home of the University of Maryland, with its huge population of foreign students. It was incredible. Here I was, a nobody going to school with the children of diplomats, but couldn’t meet them at the Hot Shoppe for coffee or at The Little Tavern for a hamburger. The irony! The bigotry of a country professing justice and freedom for all, when people were being treating like animals just a few miles from the US capitol! I was appalled, and that got my juices flowing.
I got up early to walk the mile and a half to Embry AME Zion Church in the Lakeland section of College Park on that cool October Saturday, getting there in time for the training program and rally sponsored by CORE.
I should tell you I had never seen anything quite like Lakeland. To say the neighborhood was ramshackle was a gross understatement. This area, just yards away from a major north-south federal highway as well as the state university, was straight out of Tobacco Road. Go here for some background on the community. That morning, some older volunteers taught us about Maryland law and explained the basic theory of non-violent protest. God was on our side, they said, and it was important to make that fact obvious. Do not break any laws. Do not do anything to provoke attack or arrest. Remember: there are laws and there are traditions. We would test the laws, and just hope the police could be trusted to enforce them. Here’s a copy of a CORE brochure for protests held at that time in other parts of the state. You’ll see that protesters were told to abide by the local laws. CORE would not send them out unless they were clean cut, well dressed, well mannered and could pass themselves off as just a couple of ordinary folk who wanted to share an ice cream soda with some friends of various colors, in their neighborhood eatery. Without realizing it, I had just turned a page on the passive life of childhood and had become an activist, before I could even drive without a parent in the car, vote, or buy a beer.
In case you missed it, here is a link to an hour-long video of the PBS program In Performance at The White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement. Those of you who were involved in the 1960s (or wish you had been) will probably love this concert as much as I did. http://video.pbs.org/video/1410865290/ In his introduction, President Obama reminds viewers that the civil rights movement had a sound track, was "sustained by music" and “sharpened by protest songs.” This program brings back some of the real greats, even Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, whose historical importance overshadows their weak performances. They are, after all, almost 70 years old! Smokey Robinson, on the other hand, is even older and, as far as I’m concerned, stole the show with his performance of Abraham, Martin and John. When you think about where he was singing and when (the eve of Lincoln’s birthday), you wonder how he got through the song at all. This very special uninterrupted concert features the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Mellencamp (one of my second cousins!), Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson and Natalie Cole, and others. To go directly to Smokey Robinson, scroll ahead to 45:35. For a snippet from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Blind Boys of Alabama, go to 49:15.
Female passengers were banned from United Airlines’ “executive flights” from New York to Chicago, and in some states women were barred from jury duty lest time spent in the courtroom “encourage lax performance of their domestic duties.” “Hell, yes, we have a quota,” admitted a medical school dean. “We do keep women out, when we can.”
New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins has a new book out tracing how far women have come since the 1960s. In case you forget what life was like then, here's part of a review from the October 21 edition of the The New York Times:
Giant Steps for Womankind, but Still Miles to Go
By FRANCINE PROSEOne conclusion that could be drawn from the popular TV series “Mad Men” is that the early 1960s were a great time to be an American male. How the show’s strivers and schemers relish their rowdy bonhomie, as well as the gladiatorial power games conducted in the near-total absence of female contenders. And what a solace it is for these harried executives to return home to wives who exist solely to cook their dinners, raise their children and look stunning at parties. Meanwhile, viewers can enjoy the joke of understanding, as the characters do not, that this idyll of testosterone-fueled entitlement is about to end forever.Gail Collins’s “When Everything Changed” points out what the women on “Mad Men” know: that period in our history was less enjoyable for the ladies. Ms. Collins, who edited the editorial page of The New York Times (the first woman to have held that position) from 2001 to 2007 and who now writes an Op-Ed column for the paper, begins her informative survey with a panoramic look at how women lived in 1960 — recent history, we might think, until we note how many practices then in fashion seem, by current standards, positively medieval. Female passengers were banned from United Airlines’ “executive flights” from New York to Chicago, and in some states women were barred from jury duty lest time spent in the courtroom “encourage lax performance of their domestic duties.” “Hell, yes, we have a quota,” admitted a medical school dean. “We do keep women out, when we can.”
The practice of paying women less for doing the same jobs as men was not only accepted but routine; a wife’s credit card was issued in her husband’s name; and women had trouble securing bank loans to buy a house or even a car. The National Press Club was off limits to women until 1971.
No one much questioned these regulations and customs — the dress codes requiring women to wear skirts instead of pants, the firing of airline stewardesses who gained too much weight — nor was there vocal opposition to the sort of prohibitions that we decry when they appear in dispatches from some benighted emirate or sheikdom.To read the rest of this review, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/21/books/21change.html?_r=1&hpw
On November 22, 1963, I was hired by Peace Corps headquarters at Lafayette Square [in DC] and was shopping at Garfinkel’s when I heard that John Kennedy had been shot. That death tore me out of the ‘50s and flung me into the ‘60s.
Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, a vestige of Kennedy glamour, once appeared in a white linen suit, tanned and gorgeous. I worked for a moody Baptist minister, a Texan and friend of Bill Moyers. Another Texan, Lyndon Johnson, was willing to lose the Dixiecrats to the Republicans because of his civil rights stand. While on a Peace Corps recruiting trip to the U. of Alabama, Gov. George Wallace gave a speech. I happened to be standing at the door when he exited and extended his hand to me. He had tried to stop integration at that same door the year before, and I refused to shake his hand. He said, “You don’t like me very much, do you?” Uppity women and blacks just didn’t seem to “know their place” anymore.