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. Motive magazine carried many stories written about or by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., an advocate of the teachings of Gandhi, and a minister of large church in Montgomery, Alabama. I was intrigued, to say the least.
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. They may not have had Jim Crow laws, but 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.
The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) jumped all over 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. By fall, students at the University of Maryland extended the protests to businesses in and around College Park. Eventually, students from Howard University in DC took the protests further south toward the District line and beyond.
In fall of 1961, there still were holdouts in restaurant apartheid, even in College Park, home of the University of Maryland, with its huge population of foreign students. It was incredible! Here I was, a very young, white nobody going to school with the children of diplomats, who 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.
One October Saturday, I got up early to walk the mile and a half to Embry AME Zion Church in the Lakeland section of College Park, 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 US Rte1, 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.
Go on to Walking Down Freedom Road, Part 2 for more of this story.