Greenville’s Best 3: The Civil Rights Memorial

I know. I missed yesterday and the day between. Family life has been fierce this week, complicated by  an Internet extreme communications disaster. I can’t blog without the Internet. I’ll make it up to you, readers, with a double post later.

Today, let’s talk about a topic about which I have many mixed feelings, yet it takes center place in so much of my life: Greenville’s Civil Rights Movement. Specifically, the Civil Rights Memorial and what it means to me.

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Greenville’s Civil Rights Memorial on Main Street

I was fourteen when my older brother said, “Let’s go to a Citizen’s Council meeting and see what it’s about.” That event changed my life. Before that evening at Greenville’s Memorial auditorium (now the Bi-Lo Center), my family kept arm’s length from the controversy swirling all around us, concerning attempts to end the segregation of black people from whites. (I’m using “black” here because color was precisely the point.) Don’t go near it, Mama said. They might be right, but it’s not our fight, Dad said. As a child in a mixed-race family, though––even though at that point my elders were very unclear about what exactly we were––I was fascinated. Why do people get so crazy about color, I wondered? How can beating people in the streets and burning up little girls in churches be right? What is this special glow around “whiteness? We went to the Citizens’ Council meeting.

Today, I can still recall my shock. I was raised in a Christian home, so when the preachers started praying, I knew how to act. And when the preacher prayed for success in stopping those barbarians––to the best of my recollection, that is the word he used, but it might have been some other equivalent––in the street, I felt good about being in the presence of so many white people. But then, his prayer swerved into a direction that made me squirm. They’re heathen, these demonstrators. Those who were fighting them were doing God’s work, he said forthrightly. God’s work is burning up little girls like me––almost exactly my age then, 14? That was the last time that night I felt safe.

Speaker after speaker told about the horrible things that would happen if the civil rights movement succeeded. Rapes of white women predominated in their predictions, along with a complete breakdown in morals, because everybody knows “those people” are immoral by nature. And more, but you see the direction. They said the most vicious things imaginable––beasts, apes, no better than animals––but what really made my heart begin to thump was their list of things we should all do to vindicate our supposed “whiteness.” That was the first time I thought about the fact that my paler skin made me safer. (It was somehow better to be paler, that I knew––my mom was clear that she thought my skin was “too dirty looking.” But why she felt that why I’d never truly realized until then. She was scared that her admonitions to tell people we were “white with Indian” would not keep us safe.)

The speakers warned that demonstrations were coming to Greenville, and our duty was to unleash our righteous anger on the demonstrates by any means possible: spitting on them, shouting insults, countering their truth with our own, straight from the Book: God said the races shouldn’t mix! The speakers implied––so repeatedly and so close to the edge that no one could miss it––that violence was not too far to go to protect God’s “natural order” of segregation. The crowd, with every passing minute, responded more loudly with applause, hoots, whistles, a roiling tension that sent a chill up my spine. Battle was coming, and we should get ready.

All the way home, my brother and I barely spoke. When we got to the front porch of our home, a second from opening the door to normalcy that would never feel normal again, to our mother’s insistence we stay away front the fight, our dad’s admonition not to engage it, I turned to my brother and said, “They can’t be right. That’s not Christian, what they said.” My brother murmured, “No, it’s not right.”

After that, my brother would meet and become friends with a young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member, and would take me to one of their meetings. He would go on to become active in the movement as a young seminarian. And I would be left to grapple with racism on my own.

The times were frightening and also exhilarating. I will not detail my participation, because what I did was insignificant compared to what the African-American community of Greenville endured and triumphed over.

I will say that one of the memories seared into my brain was walking with a long stream of African-Americans from downtown, during the Greenville County bus boycott. The bus company refused to allow all people to sit wherever they wanted on the bus. We refused to ride it until they did. Most of the people I encountered on my walks from downtown were women who worked cleaning the hospital, or as maids in white homes, and men who wore overalls, like my father, who worked in the mill where they were not allowed to work. I will always remember their kindness to me, the young, lighter-skinned girl who trudged along in their midst. They didn’t ask why I was there. They didn’t thank me, as if I were doing them a favor. They took it for granted that I was doing what I thought was right. I didn’t ask their names, out of fear they’d think I was a spy for the local authorities, and they didn’t ask mine, but we’d nod good morning, smile, and exchange a pleasantry or two.

We would trudge together down Main Street and turn onto Pendleton Street. At the y turn where Easley Bridge Road splits off, they would continue down Pendleton and I would turn down Easley Bridge into the Judson community, where black people were rarely seen. (Years later, my father would tell me that when he worked at Judson Mill, he was told by the housing supervisor that his relatives would not be allowed to visit again, because they looked like n******.) (Sometimes my mother and the other millworker women would employ black women to do laundry or child care. For my mother, this was generally when she was working so much overtime that she was overwhelmed by seventy hour work weeks, with a house and five children to care for. That my mother could afford this on a millworker’s salary tells you everything you need to know about what black female domestic workers were paid. When we had domestic workers, they were always picked up and driven home in our cars. It wasn’t safe for them to walk through our neighborhood.)

Sometime later, I would be followed from this corner on my way from a civil rights meeting at Israel Metropolitan CME Church. A long stream of people flowed out from the church behind me, and there were cars milling about, so it wasn’t until we turned onto Easley Bridge Road that I became aware of the car idling along just past my right ear. Now, those of you who are young may not be aware that in those days no women could walk on the streets anywhere in American without expecting to have men in cars shout off-color invitations to them. I thought this was one of those “Hey, Baby!” moments, and it did start out that way. However, their hoots quickly turned into something else: whore, slut, n*****-lover. I sped up. So did they. And then the threats began, about what they’d do to me if they found me in that part of town again. I’ll leave it to your imagination.

The day the bus company capitulated, I got on the bus at the y intersection, and purposefully moved to the back. As I did, one of the hospital workers I had seen many times greeted me from a seat in the front. I will never forget her radiant smile as she said hello.

There were other campaigns in Greenville, but I must say that, despite the Citizens’ Council’s exhortations and rabble-rousing, they never reached the hatefulness I encountered in Atlanta, and, later, in St. Augustine, Florida. Yes, more hateful than anything I experienced in Greenville. That was my experience, and I realize that might be quite different from that of the people who were the targets of more racism. Certainly, in Greenville the business leaders, once they saw the writing on the wall with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which incidentally, King lieutenant Willie Bolden has noted was passed “on the backs of the people of St. Augustine”), capitulated more quickly than did white leaders elsewhere.

There is a long and wonderful story about Max Heller and other non-African-American leaders who saw that the civil rights workers were memorialized on Greenville’s Main Street, but that’s for another time. This is one of the most impressive memorials to the heroes and heroines of that era that I’ve ever seen. Every time I go by, I stop and touch those bricks and give thanks for the lives of the brave who made the sacrifices that make us more whole as a nation. One of the more wonderful things about America is that we keep trying to make things better, together. Sometimes we succeed.

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