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 that the Maryland Freedom Rides were organized by Wallace and Juanita Nelson, two of the most celebrated civil rights activists of all time. Juanita may very well have been the person who trained me, I'm not sure. I would meet up with Juanita Nelson 40 years later when we both lived in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where she was the driving force behind the establishment of the town farmer's market, the regional farmshare program, an annual free town dinner and many other programs designed to build community while reducing homelessness and hunger. I had the honor of sitting and talking with Juanita at one of the town dinners, not long before her death in 2014. Hundreds of people from across the country came out for her New Orleans-styled memorial procession.)
I should also 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.