- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

In my segregated Alabama elementary school, teachers never mentioned Rosa Parks, who, in 1955, refused to go to the back of a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Ala. It was the same in my high school. Teachers never mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., either. Civil rights wasn’t a popular subject in the mid-1960s.

Dr. King marched. Rosa Parks sat. While their names weren’t mentioned in whites-only schools, their courageous work ignited the civil rights struggle and killed the sickness of segregation. Their leadership helped others find the strength to work for change.

I received my segregated public education in Fairfax, a small cotton mill town in East Alabama on the banks of the mighty Chattahoochee River. We had no city buses — only school buses and a few church buses.

At the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, most whites in Fairfax considered it a threat to their segregated way of life. If “coloreds” integrated Montgomery buses, whites feared they would soon integrate schools and churches. That was exactly what happened.

My grandparents were important role models for me. They were business people and deeply religious. They didn’t march with Dr. King, but they abhorred racism. “Everybody needs to earn a living,” my grandfather told me, “regardless if they are colored.”

My grandmother held that all people were children of God and it was unkind and un-Christian to mistreat “coloreds.” When a neighborhood racist used racial epithets in my grandmother’s presence, she would ask them, if they were “colored,” would they like white folks calling them such names.

My grandparents were no friends to the racists. Neither were my parents. The 1960s civil rights struggle hit close to home for me.

My father was an Army veteran and in the 1950s when he served, the Army was segregated. While in the service, Dad gained an appreciation for education, though he had little in the way of a formal education himself. Later, Dad served in the Alabama Army National Guard. His segregated unit was called Dixie.

In 1963, Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to stop two black students from integrating. President Kennedy federalized the Alabama Guard to quell racial violence at schools in our part of the state. Fortunately, there was little violence.

When his Guard unit was federalized, Dad felt it his duty to make schools safe and help all kids get a good education. He felt segregation doomed black kids to an inferior education and second-class lives. He was right. My father was proud to help bring an end to segregation in Alabama. I will always be proud of him for it.

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted by Congress, Fairfax schools didn’t integrate until the 1970s. I was in high school by then. I became friendly with black classmates and situated myself in every class so that I sat with them. Thanks to the lessons I learned from my parents and grandparents, I never feared or hated black people.

At the time, some whites were frightened by the courageous Rosa Parks and Dr. King, frightened segregation would be abolished.

During my senior year, I made the mistake of telling a classmate I wanted to work for the government in Washington. When the guidance counselor heard this, I was called for career counseling.

“Do you understand Washington is full of coloreds?” the counselor asked. “You might have to work for one.” This is what passed as career counseling then.

After graduation, the counselor suggested I go to a fundamentalist Christian all-white school for training as a minister. I wanted to say I didn’t see an all-white world in my future. But I didn’t have the courage. I lied and said that I’d reconsider working in what the counselor called the “Washington jungle.”

My career counseling didn’t stop me from working in Washington. Instead, it strengthened my desire to do so. Once away from Alabama, I found the courage to work against bigotry.

In Washington, I worked with many outstanding black professionals. I taught economics and marketing to young professionals, including blacks and other minorities. I know my parents and grandparents would have been proud of me for it.

Rosa Parks stands today with Dr. King, Vivian Malone Jones, the University of Alabama’s first black graduate, and others who were blessed with the strength to stand against a vile system. They changed Alabama and the world for the better.

Today, school children worldwide know the names of these courageous civil rights activists and of their great contribution to society. Generations to come will be inspired by their strength.

JAMES PATTERSON

James Patterson, a native Alabamian, is a former international trade economist with the U.S. Foreign Service.

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