An American Civil Rights story as told to me by Jean Taylor Colby and Sara Clay.
It is my pleasure to feature this story in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and for all who stood and stand for freedom, justice, and righteous unity.
“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,” Acts 17:26 NKJV
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
Despite the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, change was slow. James Meredith, the first African American to enroll and integrate the University of Mississippi, set out to draw attention to the continuing racial oppression in the Mississippi Delta and to encourage voter registration by African Americans in the face of opposition and the fear it produced. He embarked on his solo mission, The March Against Fear, on June 5th, 1966, starting in Memphis, Tennessee with the intent of ending at the State house in Jackson Mississippi, the state capital. On the second day of his march, Meredith was shot by a white sniper by the name of Aubrey James Norvell. Upon learning of the shooting, other Civil rights leaders, organizations and supporters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., decided to continue the march.
In June, 1966 my husband, Roy, and I participated in the March Against Fear. The purpose of the march was to non violently support and encourage voter registration of the black population and to not be hindered by fear or from the hateful opposition they faced. We took our four children with us. Their ages were 5, 7, 9, and 12. The night before we marched, we stayed with families from neighboring black churches, my husband and son with one family, and myself and our daughters with another.
The next day was brutally hot, so our hosts gave us salt pills to prevent dehydration.There were about 200 of us, and as we marched through each town we kept picking up more people. We were among the few whites in the mostly black crowd. Angry faced locals lined the highway, some carrying rifles, harassing us as we walked by. Our oldest child, Sara, remembers the hate filled face of a woman riding in a truck, with guns on a rack in the back. The woman shouted obscenities in her face and spit on her. Immediately our 12 year old was swept into the middle of the marchers to keep her safe. A grandmotherly black woman right behind her said, “Don’t you fret about it honey, we’re just gonna sing.” And they did.
“This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine.”
This is how you fight back. You sing.
Then the horrifying word came through that a black man had been lynched that same day outside the town we had just passed through.
As we walked along highway 51, we often saw poor black people bending over in the cotton fields. As soon as they saw us they would rise up tall, wave and give the marchers huge smiles of encouragement.
After a few hours, we stopped at a small farmhouse. We all took drinks of water from the well out front. It was there that our Hartford Seminary classmate and good friend, Andy Young, a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., discovered us. He said, “Wait right here just a minute.” He went inside the house where Dr. King was involved in a strategy meeting with other leaders. Dr. King stopped what he was doing, came out to the road, and greeted our family. He then blessed each of our children. It is forever a treasured memory. Then some printed handbills appeared and were passed among us with these encouraging words from Dr. King:
“We’re moving up the highway of Freedom toward the City of Equality. We can’t stop now.
In the evening we had supper in the school yard. Out of nowhere came enough food for over 200 people, as in the Bible account where on the mountainside 5,000 were fed. Peanut butter sandwiches, apples, and piles of fried chicken prepared by women from local black churches, who could ill afford it. To protect us while we ate, Federal Marshals with machine guns sat on top of the roof of the school.
After supper, as we left to head back home to Chicago, there were no federal marshals, just an angry white crowd lining the highway, shouting and shaking their fists at us, some with rifles. My husband yelled at us to get down on the floor of the car as he drove quickly out of there.
We were never afraid while walking up that highway, because we were all together, over 200 of us. We kept on singing, and we kept on walking. What a privilege it was to be there.
Meredith recovered from his wounds and rejoined the march, walking on the front lines next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders. The marchers grew in number to an estimated 15,000 participants and on June 26th, 1966, the 220 mile march ended with their arrival at the Statehouse in Jackson, Mississippi. Figures released by the US Justice department, showed that over 4,000 black people registered to vote during the march.
Sarah, you were only twelve years old. How did you feel about participating in the march?
I was never afraid. There were too many of us together to be afraid. I wasn’t even sure where my parents were. I think Mom was driving the First Aid car, and I didn’t know where Dad was, but we were all going to meet for dinner at the picnic place, so it was fine.
Tell me about the woman in the truck who spat at you.
I remember an ugly, angry face, hatred personified. She was screaming obscenities at me, a twelve year old girl- like, ” Are you gonna sleep with that #?*# n—r?! You little n—r lover! She was probably a beautiful woman, but that day she was very ugly.
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”― Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Suddenly, these big black men surrounded me and put themselves between me and the vehicles. And I remember this big black grandmotherly lady saying to me, ” Don’t you pay them no mind. We’re just gonna keep on singing.” Then we sang, This Little Light of Mine.
How did that make you feel? What was going through your head?
I wasn’t shocked. I had encountered southern racism before when I was eight years old and our family moved from Chicago, where I attended an integrated school, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. On the ride to Oak Ridge, we stopped at a gas station and I went to go to the bathroom. One bathroom had a door with a sign over it that said, “Whites Only.” The other bathroom had a sign which read, “Coloreds Only” and had no door with just a hole in the ground for a toilet. It looked like it had never been cleaned. I refused to get the key for the white toilet, but instead went around the back and peed in the grass. I wasn’t using the White’s Only bathroom.
You were white, and only eight years old That’s very young to have such conviction and make a stand. It would have been really easy for you to just go get the key and use the nice clean White’s Only bathroom.
If everyone couldn’t use it, then I wasn’t using it either. I wasn’t getting that key! I wasn’t any kind of hero; I just had the same gut reaction any decent person would have had.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
If then was now, or a similar situation presented itself, knowing the dangers, would you participate? Would you bring your children or grandchildren to it?
Yes. Children need to know, to see and be with people who aren’t like them. And when you gotta stand up for justice, it’s what you gotta do.
“the time is always right to do the right thing”― Martin Luther King Jr.
Jean, did you expect the level of opposition you faced during the march?
I don’t know if I thought about it beforehand, but I knew there had always been opposition to the Civil Rights Movement in the past.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
Why did you do it? If you faced the same situation today, would you take the risk again and bring your children with you, even being separated from your husband and son and staying with strangers?
We felt it was important, and yes, I would. When you feel strongly about a cause you know is right, you do something about it. You make a stand.
“The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
( I am truly blessed to have Jean as my mother-in-law and Sara as my sister-in -law:) )
© 2017 Rachael M Colby Tattoo It On Your Heart