I find it fitting that today’s celebration of Martin Luther King Day is being followed by the monumental day that our first black president will be sworn into office. Many of the older civil rights workers have voiced the opinion that they were glad they were able to live long enough to see this day. I am, too.
A product of the segregated South, I recognized the dichotomy between blacks and whites in South Carolina. I was able to drink at the metal water coolers, while blacks had to drink tepid water from ceramic fountains labeled “colored.” I could step into large, clean restrooms labeled “ladies,” while blacks went to the back of the building to a small room labeled “colored,” if such a room was even available. I walked in the front door and sat on the ground level of the movie theaters, while blacks entered through the side and walked up the stairs to the balcony.
Even as a child, I sensed something was wrong. By 1950 I wondered why blacks never ate in restaurants. I did not know they weren’t allowed. I wondered why blacks never swam in the municipal pool, why they didn’t go to our state park. I wondered why blacks shopped on Assembly Street in downtown Columbia, which ran parallel to Main Street, where the whites shopped. I wondered why blacks could only stand and eat hot dogs at the Woolworth’s hot dog counter, while whites could go to the newer side of the building, sit on stools, and order a variety of dishes. I wondered, but I did nothing about it, because none of it affected me.
Everything changed one summer day in 1961 when my cousin and I sat down at Woolworth’s to have a glass of tea. She had an olive complexion that tanned evenly and quickly within the first sunny days of June. We chatted and waited for the server to take our order. After a while, people sat down on either side of us, while we waited to give our order. Time passed before we noticed that the server had taken orders and delivered food to all the others at the counter, but not us.
“Miss?” my cousin called to the woman behind the counter.
She turned away and did not make eye contact.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Could we please get some service here?”
The woman looked away, busily wiping the counter.
My cousin’s eyebrows shot up and she turned to me. “Why hasn’t she taken our order?” she asked me.
I looked at my cousin, tanned and lovely in her sundress, and I looked at the others all around us, pale and white, and it dawned on me. The clerk thought we were civil rights workers trying to get service where blacks were not allowed. She thought my cousin was black.
My face flushed. I felt discrimination firsthand. There was absolutely no logic in it. Why couldn’t we get service? What had we done wrong?
In an instant I became an advocate for civil rights. No more nonchalance for me. The movement finally hit home and made sense to me. Why were our schools segregated, when the black schools were so obviously not equal to our new, fancy ones? Why were blacks required to stay in the back of the bus, even if the only seats available were in the front of the bus? What gave anyone the right to refuse service to anyone else, based on skin color?
I tried to do my part to talk up civil rights, but many of my friends thought I was crazy. My high school and all others in South Carolina stayed segregated until forced to do otherwise, but by then I was in college. In my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina, it finally integrated, with much protest and hoopla, when three quiet and studious blacks were “allowed” to matriculate. I gleefully went to meet and greet the first female black at USC, Henri Monteith, but later my house mother chastised me for bringing Henri into our dorm, where she “was not allowed.”
Some fifty years have passed since I was refused service because I was sitting with a person of color, even though her color was the result of a tan. I’ve seen steady but seriously slow progress over those years, and for a while I thought I would never live long enough to see total integration. The election of Barack Obama gave me hope that we are finally becoming the melting pot America has long claimed to be.
Martin Luther King Jr. and I had a dream, and although we still have a way to go, we are finally seeing some of that dream coming true.