The Civil Rights Story: Another Layer Revealed

 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

When Roscoe Jones was 17 years old, he attended the Freedom School in Meridien, Mississippi, a school established by the Council of Coordinated Organizations to provide black students with an actual education, not the inferior one that black children then received in the Mississippi public schools.

Roscoe was recruited by, and then ultimately led, the youth chapter of the NAACP. During the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, he worked on voter registration. It was only through a quirk of fate he was not in the car with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night the Ku Klux Klan killed them in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner  had  overheard a call Roscoe received inviting him to talk with a youth group. He urged Roscoe to stay and do that talk instead of joining them. Fate.

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Roscoe Jones beside the grave of James Chaney

I met Roscoe earlier this year. Last month, I joined him and a group of racial equity activists and knowledge seekers from the Washington, DC area on a civil rights learning journey. I thought I knew a lot about that movement. Now I know my knowledge has been superficial. I know the basic facts; the dates, the names and the more prominent incidents. But it wasn’t until this trip to Memphis, Tennessee and several parts of Mississippi and Alabama that I learned the nuances, the shadows, and just how different the life of a black, 17-year-old in Richmond, Virginia—my life—in the late 1960s was from that of one in Meridien, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama. The Deep South.

While I was attending a public high school at which I was receiving a solid, college prep education and hanging out with friends at state parks or at pool parties, Roscoe was organizing with his peers and risking his life to register voters. Only about 800 miles separates Mississippi from Virginia geographically, but we were separated by centuries of racial realities. Our worlds were incredibly different.

One of our guides shared the story of her mother, a social studies teacher, trying to register to vote. She was prepared when the registrar asked her to recite the preamble to the Constitution; she had had her students memorize it as they learned American history. Then came the follow-up question. Do you remember Oprah Winfrey in the movie Selma, the scene in which she was trying to register to vote? She was asked the number of counties in the state and then to name all the judges in those counties. You may have thought it was an exaggeration to make the point. But sitting before me was a woman in her 60s, recounting her mother’s sadness at being denied the vote because she could not recite the entire Constitution.

In Richmond, a poll tax was a requirement to register to vote until the mid-1960s, but the registrar did not ask the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of feathers on a chicken.

Nowhere in my recollection of Richmond’s history were black people jeered and assaulted as they registered their children for school as were Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth when they tried to enroll their children in an all-white school in Alabama. The crowd beat Fred Shuttlesworth with brass knuckles and stabbed Ruby.

I heard stories and learned things I never knew.

The differences I felt in Roscoe’s and my experience strengthened—chillingly so—when visiting the Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a bombing that killed four young girls.  Memorials are throughout the park. One depicts young people huddled against a wall with water hoses aimed at them, but the most powerful had snarling dogs leaping at you on both sides of the walkway. Only a soundtrack of growling, enraged dogs would have made it more realistic. No caring, compassionate person could visit such representations of fundamental moral wrongness, and not come away with a visceral—heartsick—feeling, but one, nonetheless, mixed with pride and awe for those who stood up and protested.

When I think of the civil rights movement, my frame is the non-violent protests in my home city. Nothing like this happened as young people in Richmond advocated peacefully for integrating downtown movie theaters and department store restaurants. I was aware at the time of the violence in Birmingham and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those were newsreel images. My mind hadn’t wrapped around the pervasiveness of the daily terror, the consequences of not stepping off the sidewalk as a white family walked by or of being dragged from your home in the night, beaten and possibly lynched to provide an example to others.

We hear a lot about the greatest generation, typically about World War II veterans. This trip reminded me that there are others in that greatest generation, the civil rights workers. The Roscoe Joneses of the Deep South risked their lives for many of the rights we take for granted today. They, too, were soldiers fighting for justice, for the freedom portrayed in our Constitution. Today as Roscoe, and others, share their stories with people like me, he deepens our understanding of what those experiences that we read about really were like and he strengthens our commitment today to racial equity. I am  grateful.