Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Standing Up: A fictional take on a quiet turning point in Civil Rights . . .

Martha note: The reason I'm running a short story on the day after mid-term elections is that I thought I'd be the one blogger not opining about the results today. (I plan to opine tomorrow, after I've had some more time to digest the results).
I wrote this about 20 years ago, and don't claim it's great literature. But I thought you might enjoy a story based on my own child's-eye view of the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's sit-in and my sister's early driving. . . 

It took Jessica Tattler five tries to pass her driving test, but eventually she did and so became a licensed operator of motor vehicles in the state of North Carolina in the fall of 1959.

It was MaryBell Tattler’s private opinion that the State of North Carolina had simply gotten worn down by Jessica’s persistence. MaryBell thought her older sister was still much too creative a driver to be a licensed to operate a motor vehicle anywhere outside a demolition derby. Not that MaryBell had been to a demolition derby, of course. Such fun was reserved for Milltown folks who lived in the adventurous part of town that (much to MaryBell’s frustration) the Tattlers never had any reason to go.

Anyway, nobody had asked—or, mostly likely, ever would ask—MaryBell’s opinion about her sister’s driving ability. And so, since it was Saturday morning and both sisters were out of school, Mrs. Tattler had let Jessica take the wheel to drive the three of them to downtown Greensboro, where they were to take part in the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in that had begun last Monday, February 1.

MaryBell was vague about what happened at sit-ins. She had studied the photograph of this one in last Thursday’s Greensboro Record. It had shown four young Negro men sitting on the stools at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. To MaryBell they’d looked as though they were just sitting there, not doing anything in particular and certainly not acting like troublemakers, which is what their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Stevens, had called them, loudly, over the back fence.

Behind the seated Negroes in the picture was a crowd of white people who seemed to be just standing around. Some looked expectant, a few looked agitated, most simply looked as though they were waiting for a bus that was long overdue. If this was a sit-in, MaryBell thought, it really did not look like anything worth photographing and putting in the newspaper—much less like something worth giving up her precious Saturday freedom to participate in. People stood around at the Woolworth’s lunch counter all the time. Everybody knew it served the best lunch in town.

Last night after supper, MaryBell had lain on the library floor and studied that newspaper picture for some time. It had never occurred to her before this sit-in business that all the people who ate sitting down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter were white. She had, of course, seen lots of Negroes eat standing up in Woolworth’s—mostly hot dogs and chilidogs that were sold at a separate counter. Before now, MaryBell had assumed that was just the way Negroes liked to eat. But she now understood for the first time that Negroes ate hot dogs standing up because they weren’t allowed to sit down at the lunch counter beside her and eat, say, a tuna fish sandwich.

The next morning at breakfast, MaryBell had asked her father why being able to eat sitting down at Woolworth’s was suddenly such a big deal. Her father had explained to her that Woolworth’s, along with all the other restaurants in town where white people might want to eat, did not serve Negroes. He’d said this was because of custom, not because it was the right thing to do, and that he and some men from the Methodist church had been going down on their lunch hour to lend support to the Negroes wanting to eat sitting at the counter. MaryBell thought this was odd—at least the part of it that involved her father doing something with Methodists. He did not usually voice all that high opinion of Methodists.

Her mother had jumped in then to say it high was time for the Tattler women to support the sit-in too, and they would do just that this Saturday. This announcement had made Jessica sigh deeply and say, “Oh Mom, do I have to,” while MaryBell had thought to herself, here we go again. Another Saturday ruined by her mother’s obsession with doing what she thought was the right thing.


Mrs. Tattler sat bolt upright in the front seat of the car beside Jessica, helping her drive with every fiber of her being. It was obvious to MaryBell that her mother had let Jessica drive them downtown only because she’d talked herself into believing that was the right thing to do as well, not because she had any confidence in Jessica’s driving. MaryBell was pretty sure that if she reached out and touched her mother’s shoulder it would be hunched hard with tension.

“Watch out for that car, Jessica! Do you see that car coming up beside you? Look out! Stay in your lane!”
Jessica was naturally tense behind the wheel. She knew she did not shine as a driver, and she was used to shining. Even without her mother as co-pilot, Jessica operated the gas peddle in little bumps, so the car staggered down the street like a baby just learning to walk. With her mother’s assistance, she drove so jerkily MaryBell thought it a wonder the three of them didn’t go flying through the windshield. MaryBell enjoyed her sister’s driving immensely. In fact, the one good thing about this trip to the sit-in was that Jessica was driving. Otherwise, MaryBell, who sat slumped in the back seat of the jerking car, was as mad as a half-swatted hornet. Life was just not being fair to her. Again.

Her outrage was enhanced by her clothing. For five days a week she followed stupid rules and wore a dress to school. But this was a Saturday, this was not a school day; and still her mother had made her wear a dress.
And that was not even the worst of it.

This morning at breakfast, in front of the whole family, Mrs. Tattler had solemnly presented her younger daughter with a pair of stockings and a garter belt. This was supposed to make MaryBell feel that she had officially turned into a young woman—at least for the purpose of participating in sit-ins. MaryBell was not excited about this young woman stuff at all. It seemed to her to spell confinement. MaryBell was twelve, and still angry that she had to wear a skirt to school just because she was a girl. Stockings and a garter belt seemed the final insult. Not only were they confining, they itched.

Mrs. Tattler clutched one of her delicate white linen hankies to use as a warning flag. Flap! Flap! “There’s a station wagon over there on Maple! Look out for that station wagon, Jessica!”

Jerk! Quiver! Jump!

“Jessica, you’re going too fast. You’re going too fast. It’s a twenty-five mile zone here! You’re going too fast!”

“I’m only going twenty, Mother!”

Jerk! Quiver! Jump!

The day was cold and clear and windy, the kind of day that made MaryBell feel as though she could run forever and never get tired. As they jolted along Elm Street, she looked out the car window at other children playing in their front yards; throwing balls, waggling hula-hoops, chasing each other and yelling like crazy persons. These children must have parents who didn’t care whether or not Negroes could eat sitting down at the Woolworth lunch counter. It was hard for MaryBell not to feel that these children were luckier than she was, because their parents didn’t have Beliefs. And so they got to play outside today instead of going to a sit-in all trussed up in a dress and an itchy garter belt and itchy stockings.

Sitting glumly in the back seat, listening to her tense mother and irritated sister, MaryBell once again decided it was a tricky business having parents who had Beliefs. Sometimes it seemed to MaryBell that, because of these Beliefs, she was always swimming upstream, watching the other children float effortlessly by in the other direction. Like when she was in first grade and her teacher, Mrs. Johnson, had been an enthusiastic Southern Baptist who frequently told the class that all of them who weren’t saved by the Lord Jesus Christ would probably go straight to hell when they died. Every Monday morning to drive this point home, Mrs. Johnson had taken attendance on behalf of Jesus: Would anyone who did not go to Sunday School please stand up!
The Tattlers were Unitarians. MaryBell was unclear about what being a Unitarian meant except that Jesus Christ was not heavily involved. The Tattlers gathered on Sunday mornings with the rest of the sparse fellowship in a dank basement. They sat on folding chairs and listened to someone talk about DNA or Esperanto or some other semi-understandable subject.

The worst part of being a Unitarian as far as MaryBell was concerned was that there was no Sunday school. This meant that every Monday morning of her first grade year, MaryBell had stood up alone while Mrs. Johnson prayed over her for what seemed like a couple of hours. MaryBell had once asked her mother if she could lie and stay seated. Mrs. Tattler’s response had been predictable: She was aghast! “Be proud of who you are, MaryBell!” she had commanded. “Stand up for your beliefs!” MaryBell had sometimes wondered if her mother knew how lonely it could be standing up for your beliefs in a first grade class full of children who’d been saved by Jesus.

The traffic that Saturday of the sit-in was unusually heavy. As a consequence of this, it was taking them a long time to get downtown. When Jessica managed to get the car stopped at a red light, Mrs. Tattler half turned around. She was wearing what she referred to as “her smartest hat,” a little black cap with a shiny red feather, and she had placed it on her heavy, dark hair at a jaunty angle. MaryBell thought the jaunty angle didn’t go at all with the expression on her mother’s face. Her mother, MaryBell thought, looked as though the combination of helping Jessica drive and preparing to sit-in at Woolworth’s had weighted her down with too many heavy responsibilities.

“Now MaryBell, are you sure you know what to do once we get there?

“Yes mother,” MaryBell said, in her special yes mother voice.

Unluckily Jessica, who had shuddered to a stop at a red light and so for the moment only had to keep the right pedals mashed down, had enough brain power available to act superior.

“You don’t even know what a sit-in is, you little twerp,” she announced from the throne of the driver’s seat.
Jessica was in all advanced classes. She and two other girl brains had even formed their own study club so they could learn faster. The mother of one of the other girl brains had already been to the sit-in and had told Jessica all about it. Jessica considered herself extremely knowledgeable about sit-ins.

MaryBell stuck her tongue out at her sister. It was a weak defense, but it was all she could come up with. “I do too know about sit-ins, don’t I, Mother? You told me, didn’t you?”

It was a long red light. Jessica had time to fire again. “Well then, smarty-pants, whose idea was it to sit-in?”
Whose idea was it? Whose idea was it? MaryBell’s mind went completely blank. She had never thought of the sit-in as an idea. “The mayor’s.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. MaryBell saw that the man in the car next to theirs was watching them, smiling that smile grown-ups use when they see some little child getting it from some bigger kid. Was this day going to contain a never-ending parade of public humiliations?

Mrs. Tattler turned halfway around. Her eyes, MaryBell thought, shown as though they’d been lit from inside by beautiful fire. “It was inspired by the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian, who was truly a great man, MaryBell. He developed a system of protest called passive resistance as a way to right wrongs without resorting to violence. That is the principle upon which we will be operating when we take part in the sit-in today.”

The light changed. Jessica ground the gears and the car lurched forward. Mrs. Tattler whipped her head forward again and reached out to grip the dashboard.

MaryBell said nothing. She had almost said that she had never seen Indians on TV doing anything like sitting in, but she didn’t. Maybe she just hadn’t watched the right episode.


Woolworth’s was by far MaryBell’s favorite store. Shopping in other stores tended to be fraught with formality, with all those clerks hovering around waiting to tell you what they thought you should buy. At Woolworth’s, however, the clerks all stayed put at their registers behind the counters, and MaryBell could relax and go at things in her own way and at her own speed. Her fellow shoppers reminded MaryBell of sheep, grazing away in the aisles, taking their lazy fill of looking and touching, and then looking and touching some more. Nobody cared that she was just a kid.

Woolworth’s, also, was the one store where she could do more than just shop; she could buy. A high percentage of Woolworth merchandise was actually affordable to someone who earned a salary of thirty-five cents a week by keeping the trash cans empty and drying the dishes every other night. The store had given MaryBell her first taste of economic independence, for it had let her experience the satisfaction of buying stuff with her own money. In other stores, everything had to be bought with her father’s money.

Today at Woolworth’s, however, anger and agitation hit her like a slap as soon as she walked through the front door. It seemed to MaryBell that more people were there than usual, but that nobody was shopping. In fact, nobody was even looking at the merchandise. Colored people stood in tight groups. White people stood in tight groups. Everybody was looking at someone else, and they all seemed tense, ready for something bad to start.

Mrs. Tattle reached for her hand, and MaryBell gave it to her. Jessica, she noticed with surprise, was holding on to her mother’s other hand. Jessica looked scared and tense, as though she were just about to take her driving test again.

MaryBell looked up at her mother’s face. The weighted down look was gone. Her mother looked beautiful and proud and absolutely sure of herself. As she moved through the crowd in her jaunty black hat with the red feather, her girls in tow, people made way for her as though she were a queen.

Suddenly, it felt all right to be wearing a dress on Saturday. It even felt all right to be confined within an itchy garter belt and stockings. MaryBell was, after all, one of the Tattler women, and they had Beliefs. And together, dressed in their very best clothes, they were on their way to stand up for them.

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