In life there are days that call for the courage of conviction. Most often they come in unexpectedly ways. Such a day came for me in the spring of 1970 at Hardy Jr. High School, in Jackson. I was in the 8th grade.
I have been reminded of these days in a book I picked up over the weekend: Lines were Drawn: Remembering Court-Ordered Integration at a Mississippi High School. It is edited by group of 1973 graduates of Murrah High School in Jackson. The book gives candid remembrances of students white and black that were forced together by the actions of the courts in the fall and winter of 1969-1970.
I don’t know how it went down in Meridian, but in Jackson we went home for Christmas break in 1969 with the expectation that upon return in January 1970, by court order, the faculty and administration of every school in the district would be desegregated. No one knew who his or her teachers or principals would be.
Then abruptly, we were sent back home after a couple of weeks in January to return after February 1, 1970 with the full desegregation of all the students in all the schools in the district. Lines were drawn by the courts that determined your new school.
I was able to return to Hardy Jr. High School. Most of my friends did not. They were either sent to another school or fled to one of the new private schools that suddenly sprang up like weeds after a good rain. Everything changed.
Growing up white in the 1950s and 1960s in Jackson, I rarely if ever mingled with the other race. Other than an occasional maid in our home and the janitor with only one name, Walter, at Robinson Street Baptist Church, I had never met a black person, certainly never one my age. I had been taught, though, that other than the color of their skin, black people were just like us. Jesus died for them just as much as he died for us. That’s what was in my fearful heart those first days back at school.
Then the moment came. My locker was on the second floor. A black girl had a locker just down from me. The combinations were tricky, but I had mastered how they worked. She was having trouble. I asked if I could help. She said yes. I showed her how it worked. She thanked me, changed her books and headed on the class.
Then three guys grabbed me and threw me up against the lockers. One of them put his forearm under my chin and pushed up. “We better not ever see you helping a n______ again,” someone said. The teacher across the hall was watching. She did nothing.
They shoved me harder, then let me go. I started crying. I couldn’t help it. My heart was pounding out of my chest. I knew I had done the right thing, and I determined in my heart I would do it again. And I did.
Those of us born in Mississippi in the mid 50s – both black and white – became pawns in a social struggle to right injustices that we had nothing to do with. Having been unable to remedy the situation, the adults in power in our world determined that we children must bear the burden of the past and try to overcome it. We tried, but lines were drawn, and those lines still blur the vision of our world. I pray God will give us clarity of vision for the future, and never place such a burden on children again.