Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on our newest national holiday . . .

For one afternoon when I was almost thirteen, I took part in the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Greensboro was my hometown; Woolworth's was my favorite place to lunch. I'm not sure I'd ever noticed that black people never sat beside me at the counter, but only ate take-out hot dogs standing up. One's home is one's home; things are how they are. I was fascinated, instead, by the women who waited on me with their up-swept hair and fabulously flowered handkerchiefs sprouting from their breast pockets like orchid corsages. Next to them, the skin color of my neighbors held little interest.

My parents were admirers of Gandhi, so I'd heard about non-violence. And I'd heard Dr. King's name mentioned in the same sentence with Gandhi, so I knew he advocated non-violence as well. But I didn't know what non-violence was or how it worked until that afternoon at Woolworth's.

What I remember is standing in a line with other white folks, with a line of black folks on either side of me. When it was my turn to sit on a lunch counter stool, one of those fabulously flowered handkerchief ladies stepped forward and ask me what I'd like to eat. I then turned to the black person seated next to me and said, "This person was here before me, so they should order first." At which point the handkerchief  lady, under strict orders from management not to serve persons of color, shrugged, stepped back, and I and my black neighbor sat there until our allotted time on the stool was up. At which point, we got up to make way for the next person.

I remember there was a crowd around us as we sat in. I remember a lot of angry muttering and posturing coming from that crowd, but I don't remember being afraid. Of course, as a twelve-year-old white girl, I was a member of a protected class. I have no idea how my black neighbor on the next stool felt. I know things got dicey and unpleasant later on in the sit-in. But I don't think there was ever real violence.

The idea behind the sit-in was, of course, to cost Woolworth business; to attack racism in its pocketbook. And it worked. Greensboro's Woolworth's closed for a while (after a bomb threat) and then reopened to serve all lunch counter customers sitting down.

It wasn't until much later that I understood it had been Martin Luther King's preaching of the gospel of non-violence that had fired the four black college students from North Carolina A & T to quietly sit down at my Woolworth's whites only lunch counter and begin their non-violent assault on the town's racism. But I think I was aware even at twelve, of the colossal  power loosed around me.  It amazes me now to think of Dr. King's message of non-violence; of those four young men inspired to simply, quietly, bravely do what was right in the midst of a wrong-headed society.

I love this holiday. It always regenerates hope in me that human beings can somehow right the multitudinous wrong-headednesses still operating in the world.  On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I like to think about how Dr. King taught my generation this truth: We as individuals can make a real difference by not going along with what is wrong; and instead, doing what is right.

We can ignore this truth, we can chose to not do it, we can put off doing it until tomorrow, but we can never not know that each of us doing what we know is right does make a difference.

1 comment:

  1. martha! what a precious memory and a rich meditation on the holiday. thanks for sharing this with us. i had no idea you were there, and had never thought about children at the sit-in.