My Mom Was A Marcher

MOMPICThis is a recently-discovered letter that my Mom wrote, describing her decision to march (along with my aunt) alongside Dr. King in Montogomery, Alabama. I was around six years old when this all went down, and really have no memory of it. Reading this gives me a clear snapshot of a whole other era, and makes me very proud of these women.

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Dear Rose,

You asked me to write about our impressions in Montgomery so I will jot them down, not in any journalese, but just as they pop into my mind. We both feel that this was a very small thing, quite personal and a matter of our consciences and ourselves. Since neither of us is a professional anything and unused to sharing feelings with a subscription list, we prefer that whatever parts of this you wish to use, you use without our names. I don’t think that it will diminish its usefulness to you.

The decision to to go on such a march is easy for some. I envy those for whom such a decision is simple and clear. For us it was difficult and painful. We wrestled with our separate angels and spent a few sleepless nights doing it. I wonder, now that we’ve marched and returned–and it seems so simple now–why all the problems. Was it really fear of possible injury or even death–a plane crash, a bomb tossed, a sniper’s shot (we found ourselves scanning the buildings along the Montgomery main street for a possible Lee Oswald)? Or was it a feeling of inadequacy or even, of all things, intrusion? Perhaps, even a reluctance to stand up and be counted, and to put all of our cards on the table for all to see. Or, was it that this was a little removed from our daily lives–it wasn’t a League of Women Voters meeting to which “all the girls are going.”

Here were two, almost-forty suburban housewives whose daily occupation focused on whether it will be chicken or hamburgers for dinner. We play tennis, go to dancing classes, dabble in a few civic activities. We do not belong to CORE, SNCC, NAACP and we don’t even know the words to the freedom songs. We aren’t leaders, or even followers of the movement in our own backyard; and yet we spent a sleepless night when the UAHC bus left for Selma and we weren’t on it. Maybe it was giant chutzpah or, we prefer to believe, social consciousness pecking through our own conformity, or fear. Whatever it was, when the bus left for Selma we both knew that we’d be on the plane going to Montgomery that same week.

From then on it was easy. A few inquiries, and plane seats were reserved. A few phone calls, some of which we wish we hadn’t made (the friend who said, “They don’t want you, they don’t need you and you might get killed”) and some phone calls we glad we made–the Catholic friend who told us that we have nothing to fear because God will be with us on this mission, and she will pray for us. And we took comfort knowing that her prayers were with us.

We arrived at the airport by 7:00 in the morning. People were talking about whether or not we’d have mud in Montgomery. We did not see any beatnik types. We saw a couple of Highland Park housewives, one of whom said, “I didn’t think I’d see YOU here…” We must remember to return the compliment next time we bump into her at a PTA meeting or Saks Fifth Avenue.

We were delayed in taking off by a bomb scare which I had expected, and to which nobody paid any particular notice. We boarded the plane, and Alderman Chew, who had chartered the flight, asked if someone would volunteer to relinquish his place on the plane for a member of the press. Someone did. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Off the plane at the Montgomery airport and onto waiting buses to take us to what we thought would be the assembling ground. Our bomb scare had cost us an hour, however, and we drove past St. Jude’s, and down the Montgomery highway where I caught a glimpse of a sign saying, “Get the United States out of the United Nations.” Sitting on the bus near us was a minister with a wonderful, serene expression on his face, an expression we noticed on most of the clergy; a woman in a handsome black suit wearing white gloves which she wore during the march. (She told me later that her grandmother in Tuscaloosa used to tell her that a lady isn’t really “dressed” if she’s not wearing white gloves); some college-age people; some men looking as if they were being driven to the 8:08.

We got off the buses in the Negro neighborhood and caught up with the rest of the marchers, assembled in rows of eight abreast, and were told that men must be on the outside of the line. All along the streets we saw the National Guardsmen, and above, the helicopters.

And so the march began. There was little singing. Each one of us seemed to be sifting many thoughts and feelings at the moment and were too preoccupied, really, for singing. Through the Negro section we went, and when the people on the sidewalks waved, we waved back, a little self-consciously, since neither of us had ever even marched in the Highland Park Fourth of July parade as Den Mothers.

The Negro community sent non-verbal messages to us all along the way. I think at that moment I was finally comfortable in the march. I had two nuns from Barat College on my right; a lay leader from St. Louis on my left; our lady with the white gloves behind me; and “friends” lining the sidewalks waving. It wasn’t me or you or we or they anymore. It was us. and I felt it.

Then through the white neighborhoods. No waving. No smiles. Here were people whose world is crumbling and they are scared to death. My minister on the outside of the line said that in that group there were many people who would be willing to “cross over” but they needed every bit of moral support they could get. And, he added, that’s why we’re here. One white American Gothic type did wave and smile and we were sure she’d be stoned that night.

Out of the poor white neighborhood and onto the broad, heavily patrolled main street of the downtown section. The parade’s marshals, still stationed at intervals along the line had small signs in their hands, which read “keep smiling”, and we did. Along the street were faces I had seen before in newspapers or on television, hostile faces, ignorant faces. There was a group of business school students jammed into a second floor room overlooking the street. Seventeen and eighteen year old kids filled with hate. A knot of fat, bleached-blond women standing on the street corner laughing hysterically as they pointed to the clergy and screamed, “there’s one…and there’s one…and there’s a black one…and there’s a white one.”

We reached a crest of a hill along the route, and finally saw the mass of marchers. Finally we stopped and there was the state capitol, with its flags flying (Confederate and Alabama). We heard the speeches, sang the songs–The Star Spangled Banner and the words, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” sent a tingle up the back of my neck which I had never felt before…and “We Shall Overcome”, which I’d never sung before.

We were thirsty, but were afraid of going into a gas station with a tantalizing Coke machine. We were told by a group nearby that “they were looking for trouble.” We thought of taking a cab back to the airport, but were afraid and decided to go with the group on the buses which were two hours late in coming, thanks to the “splendid” cooperation of the City of Montgomery.

Finally back to the airport. Lots of people waiting line for the phones, the bathroom, the restaurant. Dr. King came in with a group around him and I was surprised to see that he is small in stature. A Negro took a drink of water at the fountain and said to those of us in a nearby telephone line that “these integrated drinking fountains aren’t what they’re cracked up to be-the water is grey.” I remembered only then that the last time I had been in a Southern airport I saw for the first time and the last time the “colored” and “white” signs.

Let me sum up. I see I’ve rambled longer than I thought I would. We were gone for 24 hours. We left Highland Park at 5:45 on Thursday morning and pulled into Highland Park on 5:45 on Friday morning. We had been witnesses to a moment in history. We acted according to our consciences, whose still, small voices finally got through to us. We had made a decision to do something which some of our friends and families thought either odd-ball, foolish or brave.

When we pulled into Highland Park we didn’t feel odd-ball, foolish or brave at all. We gave up one 24-hour period, $80 and one night’s sleep. This was in the “out” basket. Into the “in” basket flowed more love and brotherhood and devotion than we had ever in our lives witnessed. We gave very little and received much.

Comments

  1. What a lovely memoir of what must have been a life-changing experience for your mom. We well-educated, well-informed liberals like to talk a lot about issues, make angry and cynical comments about the other side, etc., but risking putting your body where your mouth is is another thing altogether. Especially in harm’s way–whatever harm that might be. We have few enough models around us willing to do that. How lucky that you had one in your family, and still have one in your heart.

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