The Selma Enigma

Enigma –  A person or thing that is puzzling or inexplicable.

We all occasionally look back to the past and periodically examine our lives. We compare, or contrast, how our thinking has changed, or not changed, as life has affected us in one way or the other. Our confrontations and battles, both external and internal, the ones we either fought or the ones we retreated from. As long as we have the capacity to remember the past I guess we are bound to analyze it in hindsight. This was the case just the other day when I was reflecting back on the 1960’s and the social issues that were being played out in the streets of this country during the civil rights movement.

I attended a segregated elementary school in Montgomery, Alabama from 1964-1967.  Not only were the schools segregated but also the swimming pools, bathrooms, water fountains, and even the churches. Everything was segregated in the black and white world of the deep south during that time period.

“That’s just the way it was, we didn’t know any better,” I have repeatedly told myself as well as others so many times over the years. Perhaps by stating this it has served to ease a repressed, guilty conscience.  The personal question that burns just as hot as a coal in fire that glows brightest just before it goes out is, why? Why didn’t I know or realize to any degree whatsoever what was really going on? Why didn’t I see through the institutional programming that I was subjected to? Why wasn’t I able to see what is so obvious to me now? Segregation was then and is now just wrong. 

I was brought up in a Christian home and taught to be nice to people, to respect elders, to respect other peoples property, to share, as well as other manners and etiquette although struggling at times to follow through on the lessons taught. Granted, I was not that smart as a kid but some actions, or in-actions, are not a matter of intelligence but rather common sense. Thoughts and ideas fertilized and guided by ignorance will destroy any hope of rational and logical conclusions especially when one is only 11 years old. As I retrace time back to this period I still find it so hard to understand why I couldn’t distinguish the fundamental difference between right and wrong when it came to how people should be treated.

I, looking back, never even thought about the absence of black children at my school, which is kind of odd because growing up as a “military brat” we lived around black families. When traveling off-base through the “bad section” of town with it’s rows upon rows of dilapidated houses I saw many, many black people. This was not just in Alabama but also in Georgia, the place I lived for six years before moving to Montgomery. Why did I never question the absence of black kids in school? Oh yeah, “that was just the way it was.” We, whites, had our school and they, blacks, had theirs. 

One school year I remember being at home from school because of contracting the measles. With nothing to do I watched the old black and white television which had recently found its way into my bedroom because a new color television was purchased for the living room. Back then we had three choices for television stations – ABC, CBS, or NBC. With nothing to do I turned on the TV and on all three channels the only programming was the Montgomery to Selma civil rights march. Resigned to either staring at the walls or watching TV I lay there watching TV.

“Trouble-makers”, I remember thinking. “They must be with the police being called in,” I thought to myself. “They must be breaking the law because the police are called when laws are broken.” They… they… they. 

As I watched however I did not see anything but people marching. There were no instances of looting, violence, name-calling by those marchers that would later be seen in the larger urban cities. But, those on the sidewalks and side of the roads were name-calling and they looked very, very angry. Some shouting out obscenities and even throwing things and spitting. The police however were not concerned with those on the sidewalks or side of the road but only the marchers. The police were only concerned with the “trouble-makers,” although the name I labeled the marchers with was not the word  coming out of the mouths of the hate-filled onlookers.

What a shallow understanding of what appeared before my eyes did I have. I remember mulling over questions, “Who was right, who was wrong? Why was there so much hatred and violence toward the marchers?” Never had a black person done me any harm. I had never even heard of anyone being harmed by someone black back then, although I must admit as a youngster I did not keep up with the headlines. Overhearing talk, which kids are usually good at tuning in on, it would seem the blacks were the root cause of so many of the problems being suffered even those problems which were obviously of a personal nature, which of course, if looked at objectively, certainly could not possibly be true.

Perhaps it was just as you see so much of today.  People are so reluctant to admit their own shortcomings so they choose rather to place the blame on someone else.  In this case, how convenient to blame someone, or some group, that does not have the power to fight back, in fact, has no recourse what-so-ever. This common theme would surface over and over in my lifetime and not just in race relations. To raise an objection to such a clear travesty of justice would not merit any consideration, that is, when the originator of the objection was black. But, then, “that was the way it was.”

It was so ironic being in a segregated school and opening our little orange cloth covered song books for music class and singing of all things a “Negro Spiritual.” An entire race being singled out and maligned because of having no apparent worth or contribution to society, rather a burden to society, not to mention being the source of all the problems plaguing society, (at least my society), and yet there we were, white children, singing “Negro Spirituals.” That was how the songs were categorized at the top part of the page. I read it with my own eyes and will never forget that. “Negro Spirituals.” Were those on the side of the road throwing things at defenseless people spiritual? I had asked myself, were they Christians too? How can one reconcile the teachings of Christ and yet act that way?  How hypocritical! 

On one hand the “negroes” were ridiculed and mocked but on the other hand we sang “their” songs. Hmmm. I wondered, did they, the negroes themselves, sing these songs? If so, I had never heard Negroes sing “Wade in the Water” and yet we would be encouraged to “belt it out” in class and did just that.  I wonder if their song books had a reference to “White Spirituals”? I was listening to the marchers sing over and over, “We Shall Over-come,” but nothing from the old orange covered songbook . But did they really have much to sing about at all? Singing was a joy, a release for so many and for me personally a release from the hum-drum of the other subjects I hated so much in school. Later I would realize it must have been a measure of joy, a release, for them as a powerless group caught in a system that deprived them from the fundamental freedoms that I myself would be uninhibited from pursuing and eventually enjoying later in life.

I watched that day as Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, and a large group of followers walked along united and indeed they sang and in unison as they marched on determined, resolute in their cause. A cause I could not understand at that time and never really tried to because I had the answer all prepared and laid out for me. “That’s just the way it is.”

In time my view on civil rights changed.  The term to identify race also changed from “negroes” to “blacks.” Also adjusted was my belief that blacks should not be identified as “trouble-makers” but rather freedom seeking “people.”  Why the change? Maybe it was the fact that later when I was in 9th grade blacks finally attended my school and I saw one of them struggling in Math class just like me, yes, just like me. A year later I saw one black kid who had no problem with Math at all, in fact, it was his favorite subject. Maybe it was the fact that when I was in high school in Hawaii I myself was a minority in a school predominately made up of Asian and Pacific Islanders and found myself the object of name-calling and insults because of my skin color that I could understand the feeling, the sting, that prejudice leaves.

You don’t know me,” I would think, “how could you hate me and not even know me?”

Maybe later when I was in the military and worked with people from all races, not just blacks, did I realize that they were just trying to support themselves and their families just like me, yes, just like me. People are just people and there is no good reason for labels. There is no excuse for unwarranted, unjustifiable hatred. The thought of it now sickens me.

Years later I spoke with one of my black friends about this time period in our lives. She had grown up in Alabama during the 60’s. I asked her, “What did you think about the segregated schools, bathrooms, swimming pools, and so forth when you were growing up?”

She replied, “We didn’t think much about it at all, it’s just the way it was.”

I was somewhat taken-aback by this statement, that old familiar statement that I myself repeated over the years. Surely there should be some resentment, some ill feelings I thought. But, there wasn’t. After thinking about it later that evening I concluded it should not have surprised me that this answer was word for word the same as the one I carried with me for so long. After all, we are no different. We are all just humans trying to make our way along in life in a chaotic system we, for the most part, have no control over.  The march from Montgomery to Selma was a turning point in my life.  I think 1965 was more than a turning point for one group of people but almost assuredly for others as well.  The way it is, is not the way it has to be.  

I guess if there is a moral to the story it would be, don’t indoctrinate children to pre-judge a particular group of people based on color. That seems so simplistic and obvious now. I wish it would have been so then. Of course, that moral could be extrapolated to include sex, religion, or any other reason that would suggest one has to come to an obvious conclusion about a whole group of people based on a single identifying fact. 

Why do certain issues thought to have been resolved so long ago repeat themselves or surface time and time again, over and over? Why does “that’s just the way it was” sound so much like an excuse? Lastly, why did I not understand the true significance of  what I was watching as the courageous, non-violent marchers walked that day from Montgomery to Selma?  

This I find to be an enigma.

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