Nance writes today about the 50th anniversary, on February 1, of the Sit-in of The Greensboro Four …
… an historic event which, due to the media attention it received and the momentum it launched for desegregation, has been called the Dawn of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.
In my 12th year, my family moved from New England to Nashville, to various comic effects. One of my fellow students complained about my “put on Northern accent” which especially hysterical as I rarely understood a word she said. That, and we had arrived complete with a staggering sense of the right to be here common to old New England families—though I wouldn’t have described it as such, then, not our neurotic, unsure bunch. Entitlement is, however, where you find it, and we thought these Southerners were, not to put too fine a point on it, drawling fools. Not the people we knew—my father was a physicist, our friends all staunch Unitarians—but the the waitresses (as wait persons were known in those days) who had us stumped with their perpetual after-dinner question, “Y’all want Pa?” until one of them must have at last added, lemon merinque, chocolate creme? The women in stores simply said, “Y’all come back!” sometimes adding, “now!” and, “heah?” All this friendliness was like drinking Southern soda pop, far too sweet.
I was also a serious girl, seeing many new things that left sobering impressions. Old enough to ride the bus alone to downtown Nashville, I remember the miles and miles and miles of gray, shack-y houses that surrounded the city, the self-evident truth of urban life. I would stare out the window, wondering how those people lived, until the fearful monotony became too much and I would turned away.
The second remarkable thing about life in the South also had to do with buses. Which I liked to ride—my father had driven a bus while he went to graduate school—but here, in this strange place, the colored people, as they were called, calmly seated themselves always at the back. Now, I especially liked riding in the back, partial to that long bench seat, which brought up a dilemma. Did I want to foreswear my favorite seat because I was white, and enjoy the ride less? That wasn’t hard, I set no particular stock in being white. But the second decision was stickier; I worried that I might embarrass the black people, or put them on the spot, seem to be charging into their territory, so to speak. I did not so much feel sorry for them as want not to worsen the general indignity.
What I remember most is their slow walk up the aisle, as if by this journey you could read, despite their impassive faces, great and true stories. I think now their hidden resentment wasn’t so hidden, only expressed silently, in subtle ways. Resigned—that was it. Their expressions, besides fatigue—the women often had on maids uniforms under their coats—were terribly resigned. As if to say, some day I will be free of this demeaning crap.
The past is important to honor, to remember.