A long time ago, in another life, I lived in one room at the top of an old house at the corner of 14th Street and Peachtree Street in Atlanta, a rooming house run by an incredibly kind Quaker woman named Christine Wilson. I was young and pregnant and determined not to go home again, where no one would say what we were and everything I wanted to be was drowned out by the noise of my parents’ quarrels. That room was my one safe space: ten square feet where I could read, draw, sit on the tiny balcony with the newspaper, and retreat after work from a big city that both frightened and thrilled me. Another space that seemed almost as welcoming was the Quaker meeting house around the corner, where my landlady attended, and where I encountered again the civil rights movement that had been one source of my mother’s quarrels with me. That was my first experience with a church that moved outside its own walls with its beliefs, that lifted up everyone rather than divided.
On my days off, I spent some time, also around the corner, at a temporary office for the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, where someone discovered I could write reasonably legibly in large letters and so I was assigned to make posters for the marches and pickets. It was the days of Lester Maddox and a struggle for the soul of the city. Hosea Williams was leading the Jobs and Justice campaign and the first talk of African-Americans running for office was breaking the surface of the city’s staid downtown.
Eventually, I decided to marry and moved to Illinois. The day I packed my bags in my upstairs room, the other roomers, all poor working men, came to say goodbye. One gave me a small painting he’d done, a rich sworn of blues and reds. Mrs. Wilson hugged me and told me I would always be welcome. She had already let my room and the new boarder was outside now, talking to a friend.
I struggled not to cry as I made my way down the cracked front walkway. At the end, the two men were saying goodbye. One turned and strode toward the front door. I recognized him from the movement, already a legend for what he’d done as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Just this year, I saw him portrayed in the movie Selma, which made me smile, as I smiled that day, thinking of that mild-mannered, fierce-souled man sitting on “my” balcony, gazing out over the city and making plans.
Tenuous as it is, this small connection with Julian Bond has always occupied a corner of my heart, right next to the small amount of courage I possess.
That long-ago day, he nodded and smiled at me. Then I watched him stride quickly toward Mrs. Wilson’s front door, like a man with a plan that he intends to see through.
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