I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a segregated community in Nashville, Tennessee where the only times I saw White people were on TV or when my family went downtown. I watched my grandmother go to meetings to learn about boycotts and sit-ins to demonstrate against the inhumane treatment of the “Negro” community. I overheard my mother speak of the injustice of paying White teachers more than “Negro” teachers, implying that her worth and labor was not as valuable just because of her skin color. Yet she maintained her dignity in encounters with Whites and she raised her family with the slighted income she received from the city.
When I was 13, word spread that the children in the city would be solicited to march and protest stores downtown to challenge the practice of taking the money of the “Negro” community for purchases while forbidding them from sitting to eat in public facilities, from using public restrooms and from working in their establishments. For us, it was about more than being able to sit down to eat French fries and a cup of a coffee at the counter; it was about “Negro” men and women having equal access to employment and economic stability; it was about my mother being paid the same as a White woman for doing the same job.
With my mother’s permission, my older brother and I were dismissed from school on the designated morning to attend rallies and to picket selected stores and restaurants downtown. Hundreds of children and adults gathered at First Baptist Church on the edge of downtown, a few feet from the state capitol building in Nashville.
We practiced singing the freedom songs over and over again until we learned the words by heart. Those songs encouraged our hearts and helped to calm our fears. Prayers were offered for God’s guidance and protection as we faced unknown danger. The civil rights leaders in charge gave us specific instructions on how to respond nonviolently in the possible scenarios we could face. It was stressed that we were not to retaliate by words or action in the face of aggression and hatred.
We lined up in our appointed sections and began the march. Luckily, there were no violent incidents as my group picketed the drugstore with our signs and our songs. We circled the entrance countless times, preventing any customers from entering that morning. Afterwards, all of us protesters from the various sites converged in front of City Hall for a public rally with speeches, prayer and singing.
As this large mass of children and adults marched from City Hall back to First Baptist Church, Whites who had been observing the events of the morning gathered around us. I recall faces with mean expressions, jeers and harsh words, including the N-word. People threw rocks and eggs at us. I felt scared in that moment on the one hand, and sad on the other that people would act so ugly toward a group of people, mostly children, who had done nothing to harm them.
Thank God we made it back to the church with minimal injury to participants. The action this day was one of many over many years that forced Nashville’s mayor and business leaders to reluctantly do the right thing and stop discriminatory hiring practices in downtown facilities.
My involvement taught me that it is important to make sacrifices and even put your life in danger to protest injustice. Because of actions like this one, our community was able to make their lives and their futures more secure. Without speaking out against these injustices, that change could not have happened. I am participating in CCC’s Writing Fellowship program to share the stories of those impacted economically by broken policies and structures because I believe that the first step toward change is voicing your struggle.