P A R T O N E
Teaching and living for seven years in the black community of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the years of “the Movement,” I came to see the importance of small-scale actions as preparing the way for larger ones.
I did not seek out a “Negro college,” in the year 1956, because of an urge to do good. I was just looking for a job.
I had worked for three years loading trucks in a warehouse on the four-to-midnight shift, while going to New York University and Columbia. (I never paid a cent in tuition, thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights, still a good example of how governments can run vast programs with minimum bureaucracy to enormous human benefit.) One day I hurt my back lifting one eighty-pound carton too many, and began to teach “part-time,” learning quickly that part-time teachers often work longer and get paid less than full-timers. I taught four day courses at Upsala College, a Swedish-Lutheran, absurdly uptight college in New Jersey, and two evening courses at absurdly chaotic Brooklyn College. So, from the “project” where we lived in lower Manhattan I traveled an hour west to New Jersey on some days, an hour east to Brooklyn other days, teaching six courses for a total of $3,000 a year.
Roz was doing secretarial work to help support us all. In high school, though editor of the literary magazine and winner of the English medal, she had taken typing and shorthand, as even the brightest of girls were expected to do. (Only when our children were grown up did she have a chance to go to college, teach English to “special students,” that is, tough kids who were failing their courses, and then become a social worker, first with black high-school dropouts, afterwards with elderly poor people in the Italian-Irish sections of Boston. She wanted to give back, as she put it, what life had given her.)
Our children were in a nursery school for low-income families sponsored by good-hearted women of means who visited the school from time to time—they were all very tall and looked like Eleanor Roosevelt. Twice we went through the trauma of leaving a two-year-old crying inconsolably on the first day of nursery school, as we went off to our different destinations. One afternoon when I returned to pick up our son Jeff, he spotted me approaching, ran full speed to the schoolyard gate, and stuck his head between two of the bars; it took ten minutes to extricate him, with the help of a fireman and a crowbar.
Close to finishing my Ph.D. work in history at Columbia University, I was contacted by its placement bureau for an interview with the president of Spelman College, who was visiting New York. The idea of a “Negro college” hadn’t occurred to me. Spelman at that time was virtually unknown to anyone outside the black community. He offered me the chairmanship of his history and social sciences department, and $4,000 a year. I summoned up my courage. “I have a wife and two kids. Could you make it $4,500?”
True, it was a tiny department, and scoffers might say being its chairman was like being the headwaiter in a two-waiter restaurant. But in my situation it was very welcome. I would still be poor, but prestigious.
While I had not sought out a teaching job in a black setting, my encounters with black people up to that time had made me open to the idea. My teenage reading (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright’s Native Son) left me seeing race and class oppression as intertwined. Working in the Navy Yard I was conscious that black men were kept out of the craft unions for skilled workers, were given the toughest jobs on the ship as chippers and riveters, wielding dangerous steel tools driven by compressed air. In the Air Force I became painfully aware of the segregation of black soldiers in a war presumed to be against Hitler’s racism. In our low-income housing project our friends and neighbors were Irish, Italians, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans, who worked together in a tenants’ council and gathered for potluck dinners and basement dances.
In August of 1956, Roz and I trundled the two kids and our belongings into our ten-year-old Chevy and drove south. We arrived in Atlanta on a hot and rainy night, and Roz and the children (Myla was nine, Jeff almost seven) awoke to watch the shimmering wet lights on Ponce de Leon Avenue. We were in a different world, a thousand miles from home, a universe removed from the sidewalks of New York. Here was a city thick with foliage, fragrant with magnolias and honeysuckle. The air was sweeter and heavier. The people were blacker and whiter; through the raindrops on the windows they appeared as ghosts gliding through the darkness.
The campus of Spelman College was not far from the center of town, an oval garden of dogwood and magnolia trees, ringed with red-brick buildings. Our family was given temporary quarters in one of those buildings until we could find a place to live in town. That wasn’t easy. Landlords wanted to know where I worked. When I told them I was teaching at Spelman, the atmosphere changed; apartments were no longer available. This was our first direct encounter with that malignancy which has for so long infected all of America but was then so much more visible in the Southern states.
What for us was an inconvenience was for blacks a daily and never-ending humiliation, and behind that a threat of violence to the point of murder. Just ten years earlier, a sheriff in Baker County, Georgia, taking a black man to jail, had smashed his head repeatedly with a blackjack, in view of witnesses. The man died. The sheriff, Claude Screws, was acquitted by a local jury, then found guilty by a federal jury under an old civil rights statute and sentenced to six months in prison. This was overturned by the Supreme Court, which found no proof that the sheriff had intended to deprive the prisoner of his constitutional rights. One day I looked down the list of members of the Georgia legislature and saw the name of Claude Screws.
The city of Atlanta at that time was as rigidly segregated as Johannesburg, South Africa. Peachtree Street, downtown, was white. Auburn Avenue (“sweet Auburn,” as it was known in the Negro community) was a five-minute ride away from downtown, and was black. If black people were downtown it was because they were working for whites, or shopping at Rich’s Department Store, where both races could come to buy but the cafeteria was for whites only. If a white person and a black person walked down the street together as equals, with no clear indication that the black was a servant of some kind, the atmosphere on the street suddenly became tense, threatening.
I began my classes. There were no white students at Spelman. My students, in a rich variety of colors, had wonderful names like Geneva, Herschelle, Marnesba, Aramintha. They were from all over the country, but most were from the South and had never had a white teacher. They were curious and shy, but the shyness disappeared after we came to know one another. Some were the daughters of the black middle class—of teachers, ministers, social workers, small business people, skilled workers. Others were the daughters of maids, porters, laborers, tenant farmers.
A college education for these young women was a matter of life and death. One of my students told me one day, sitting in my office, “My mother says I’ve got to do well, because I’ve already got two strikes against me. I’m black and I’m a woman. One more strike and I’m out.”
And so they accepted—or seemed to accept—the tightly controlled atmosphere of Spelman College, where they were expected to dress a certain way, walk a certain way, pour tea a certain way. There was compulsory chapel six times a week. Students had to sign in and out of their dormitories, and be in by 10:00 P.M. Their contacts with men were carefully monitored; the college authorities were determined to counter stories of the sexually free black woman and worse, the pregnant, unmarried black girl. Freshmen were not permitted to go across the street to the library at Atlanta University, where they might encounter the young men of Morehouse College. Trips into the city of Atlanta were closely supervised.
It was as if there was an unwritten, unspoken agreement between the white power structure of Atlanta and the administrations of the black colleges: We white folk will let you colored folk have your nice little college. You can educate your colored girls to service the Negro community, to become teachers and social workers, maybe even doctors or lawyers. We won’t bother you. You can even have a few white faculty. At Christmas some of our white citizens may come to the Spelman campus to hear the famous Spelman choir. And in return, you will not interfere with our way of life.
This pact was symbolized by a twelve-foot-high stone wall around the campus, at certain points replaced by a barbed wire fence. After our family moved into an apartment on campus near that fence, our eight-year-old son, Jeff, who seemed to be an expert on such matters (at that time spending his spare hours with the buildings-and-grounds workers on campus), pointed out to us that the barbed wire was slanted not so as to keep intruders out, but to keep the Spelman students in.
One day the students would leap over that wall, climb over that barbed wire fence, but in the fall of 1956 there was no indication of that defiance. One year before, the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, had ended in victory. The year before that, the Supreme Court had finally come around to deciding that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial segregation in the public schools. Very little was done, however, to enforce that decision; the Supreme Court order stipulated “all deliberate speed,” and the key word was not “speed.”
I soon learned that beneath my students’ politeness and decorum there was a lifetime of suppressed indignation. Once I asked them to write down their first memory of race prejudice, and the feelings tumbled out.
One told how as a teenager she sat down in the front of a bus next to a white woman. “This woman immediately stormed out of her seat, trampling over my legs and feet, and cursing under her breath. Other white passengers began to curse under their breaths. Never had I seen people staring at me as if they hated me. Never had I really experienced being directly rejected as though I were some poisonous, venomous creature.”
A student from Forsyth, Georgia, wrote: “I guess if you are from a small Georgia town, as I am, you can say that your first encounter with prejudice was the day you were born.… My parents never got to see their infant twins alive because the only incubator in the hospital was on the ‘white’ side.”
Every one, without exception, had some similar early experience. Years before I came to Atlanta I had read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident”:
Once riding in Old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
That poem, which I read when I was perhaps nineteen, affected me powerfully. What I had known in my head about race prejudice now touched my heart; I was, for a moment, that eight-year-old boy. Perhaps we respond so quickly to injustice against children because we remember the helpless innocence of our own childhood, when we are all especially vulnerable to humiliation. My students’ stories of their own early experiences affected me the same way.
The events of my life, growing up poor, working in a shipyard, being in a war, had nurtured an indignation against the bullies of the world, those who used wealth or military might or social status to keep others down. And now I was in the midst of a situation where human beings, by accident of birth, because of their skin color, were being treated as inferior beings. I knew that it was wrong for me, a white teacher, to lead the way. But I was open to anything my students wanted to do, refusing to accept the idea that a teacher should confine his teaching to the classroom when so much was at stake outside it.
I had been at Spelman six months when, in January of 1957, my students and I had a small encounter with the Georgia state legislature. We had decided to visit one of its sessions. Our intent was simply to watch the legislature go about its business. But when we arrived we saw, and should have expected, that the gallery had a small section on the side marked “colored.” The students conferred and quickly decided to ignore the signs and sit in the main section, which was quite empty. Listening to the legislators drone on, even for a few minutes, about a bill on fishing rights in Georgia rivers, we could understand why the gallery was empty.
As our group of about thirty filed into the seats, panic broke out. The fishing bill was forgotten. The Speaker of the House seemed to be having an apoplectic fit. He rushed to the microphone and shouted, “You nigras get over to where you belong! We got segregation in the state of Georgia.”
The members of the legislature were now standing in their seats and shouting up at us, the sounds echoing strangely in the huge domed chamber. The regular business was forgotten. Police appeared quickly and moved threateningly towards our group.
We conferred again while the tension in the chamber thickened. Students were not yet ready, in those years before the South rose up en masse, to be arrested. We decided to move out into the hall and then come back into the “colored” section, me included.
What followed was one of those strange scenes that the paradoxes of the racist, courteous South often produced. A guard came up to me, staring very closely, apparently not able to decide if I was “white” or “colored,” then asked where this group of visitors was from. I told him. A moment later, the Speaker of the House went up to the microphone, again interrupting a legislator, and intoned, “The members of the Georgia state legislature would like to extend a warm welcome to the visiting delegation from Spelman College.”
A few male students from Morehouse College were with us on that trip. One of them was Julian Bond, son of the distinguished educator and former president of Lincoln University, Horace Mann Bond. Julian was an occasional visitor at our house on the Spelman campus, introducing us to the records of Ray Charles, bringing poems he had written. (A decade later, Julian, by then a well-known civil rights leader, would be elected to the Georgia state legislature and, in an odd reprise of our experience, would be expelled by his fellow legislators because of his outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam. A Supreme Court decision upholding his right to free speech restored him to his seat.)
Sometime in early 1959, I suggested to the Spelman Social Science Club, to which I was faculty adviser, that it might be interesting to undertake some real project involving social change. The discussion became very lively. Someone said, “Why don’t we try to do something about the segregation of the public libraries?” And so, two years before sit-ins swept the South and “the Movement” excited the nation, a few young women at Spelman College decided to launch an attack on the racial policy of the main library in Atlanta.
It was a nonviolent assault. Black students would enter the Carnegie Library, to the stares of everyone around, and ask for John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, or Tom Paine’s Common Sense. Turned away with evasive answers (“We’ll send a copy to your Negro branch”), they kept coming back, asking for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and other choices designed to make sensitive librarians uneasy.
The pressure on the libraries was stepped up. We let it be known that a lawsuit was next. One of the plaintiffs would be a professor of French at Spelman, Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson, who came from a prominent Atlanta family. Her sister was Mattiwilda Dobbs, the distinguished opera singer. Her father was John Wesley Dobbs, a great orator in the old Southern tradition. (Once, sitting in the Wheat Street Baptist Church, I heard John Wesley Dobbs keep a crowd of a thousand in an uproar. “My Mattiwilda was asked to sing here in Atlanta,” he thundered. “But she said, ‘No sir. Not while my daddy has to sit in the balcony!’ ” Years later, Irene Jackson’s son, Maynard Jackson, would be elected mayor of Atlanta. That was impossible to imagine in those days when we were pressing for something so absurdly simple as the right of black people to go to the library.)
In the midst of our campaign, I was sitting in the office of Whitney Young, Dean of the School of Social Work of Atlanta University, who was working with us. We were talking about what our next moves should be when the phone rang. It was a member of the Library Board. Whitney listened, said, “Thank you,” and hung up. He smiled. The board had decided to end the policy of racial segregation in the Atlanta library system.
A few days after that, four of us rode downtown to the Carnegie Library: Dr. Irene Jackson; Earl Sanders, a young black professor of music at Spelman; Pat West, the white Alabama-born wife of Henry West, who taught philosophy in my department at Spelman; and myself. As the youngish librarian handed a new library membership card to Irene Jackson, she spoke calmly but her hand trembled slightly. She understood that a bit of history was being made.
Pat and Henry West, white Southerners who had scandalized their families by coming to live in a black community, had a three-year-old boy who was the first and only white child in the Spelman College nursery school. At Christmastime it was traditional for schoolchildren to be taken to meet Santa Claus at Rich’s Department Store downtown, where the children would take turns sitting on Santa’s lap and whispering what they wanted for Christmas. Santa was a white man in need of a job, and he had no qualms about holding little black kids on his lap. When little Henry West climbed onto his lap, Santa Claus stared at him, looked at the other children, then back at Henry, and whispered in his ear, “Boy, you white or colored?” The nursery school teacher stood by, listening. Henry answered, “I want a bicycle.”
I have told about the modest campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s libraries because the history of social movements often confines itself to the large events, the pivotal moments. Typically, surveys of the history of the civil rights movement deal with the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case, the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham demonstrations, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Missing from such histories are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.
Sitting in our living room on the Spelman campus one evening, Dr. Otis Smith, a physician, told of his recent departure from Fort Valley, Georgia, an agricultural town of twelve thousand people where he had been the only black doctor. “Run out of town.” He smiled. “It sounds like something out of an old Western movie.”
Dr. Smith had been a star athlete for Morehouse College, and then a student at Meharry Medical School in Nashville; he’d accepted an offer from Georgia’s Board of Regents to help pay for his last year in medical school in return for a promise to spend fifteen months in a rural area in Georgia. Fort Valley, in Peach County, seemed a likely place. The last black doctor in town had died several years before, leaving blacks there (60 percent of the population) at the mercy of those humiliations that often accompanied white doctor-colored patient relations in the Deep South: entrance through the side door, a special “colored” waiting room, and sometimes the question, Do you have the money? before a sick call was made to the house.
Otis Smith made a down payment on a home, hung out his shingle, and soon his office was full. But when he showed up at the Fort Valley Hospital for his first obstetrical stint in the town, the two white nurses stared at him and left the room, with a black woman in labor on the table. He delivered the baby with the aid of a black attendant.
One evening, while he was talking on the telephone to a patient who needed his help, a white woman cut in on the party line and demanded that he get off so she could speak. He told her he was a doctor talking to a patient. She replied, “Get off the phone, nigger.” Perhaps an old-style Negro doctor would have responded differently, but the young Dr. Smith said, “Get off the phone yourself, you bitch.”
He was arrested the next day, brought into court before his attorney even knew that the trial was going to take place, and sentenced to eight months on the chain gang for using obscene language to a white woman. In prison, facing the chain gang, he was offered release if he would leave town immediately. The next day the black people of Fort Valley were without their doctor.
In Georgia, as all over the South, in the “quiet” years before the eruption of the sit-ins there were individual acts—obscure, unrecorded, sometimes seemingly futile—which kept the spirit of defiance alive. They were often bitter experiences, but they nurtured the anger that would one day become a great force and change the South forever.