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.

Swimming in Inequity: Waters Divide

What do you think when someone says “Let’s go to the pool.” A fun place to meet friends, a peaceful spot to read a good book, take a refreshing swim, or do rigorous laps?

Whatever you think, this iconic image of summer rarely brings forth thoughts of race, but that’s exactly what happened to me recently. The racial overtone of swimming pools came to mind when I learned of a play coming to my area called #poolparty. Based on an incident that happened years ago in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, a community just outside of Washington, DC, this play focuses on the unique, and perhaps unexpected, role that swimming pools have played in the history of race in America.

Public pools were off limits for many African-Americans during the years when I grew up. In the late 1950s and 60s, there were none available for black people in Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. City leaders claimed that tight budgets and the fear of the transmittal of diseases, particularly polio at that time, was the basis for this decision. But no one believed that. The real reason, some suggest, was a desire not to mix races in what many felt was the intimacy of a swimming pool. Body-revealing bathing suits and the possibility of touching, even accidentally, brought forth the white community’s historical need to protect white women from black men. Since integration in civic areas was now legally mandated, public pools, at least those in Richmond, and in many other communities, would be closed.

Now, this reality didn’t have too much impact on many whites. There were private community pools and private country clubs. White teenagers still had pool parties, and young white parents took their young ones to pools to learn to swim.

That wasn’t the case in my community. Even though neither of my parents could swim, they both wanted me to learn. I remember them talking about how much fun I could have. It was right before school ended in the 7th grade that these conversations started in my home. Swimming had never come up before. What I didn’t know was that there hadn’t been a place for me to learn to swim until then. The local black Y—separate and pool with stepsunequal—didn’t have a pool like the white Y. At the time, there was no country club for the black community. But that summer a resource became available. A local black physician opened his nearby home to swim instructors from the black Y. They held classes in his backyard pool. That year, the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, I packed my towel and put on shorts over my swimsuit and walked the few blocks to Dr. Jackson’s house to learn to swim. Just as had always been the case, the black community found a way to take care of its own. But for those not fortunate enough to have a Dr. Jackson with a pool in the neighborhood, your grandparents might not have learned to swim. If they didn’t, your mom and dad might not have been encouraged to learn. And the fun and value of learning to swim may not have been transmitted to you.

The lack of access to pools in the ‘50s and ‘60s continues to have an impact today.

Swimming is often seen only as a recreational activity but learning how to swim can, of course, save your life. Even today, the USA Swimming Foundation estimates that 70% of African-Americans cannot swim. Consider that fact against the high percentage of people who lost their lives in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most were poor and black… and they drowned.

While swimming pools are no longer the symbol of privilege they once were, access to swimming is still disproportionately more available to the white community. Certainly swimming and access to a pool is not the symbol of racial equity in America. But the next time you sit by the pool to read, or you invite your friends over for a swim, at least acknowledge that this, too, is representative of the racial divide that continues to exist and is emblematic of a much more profound and significant racial disparity in America.