Sitting apart on a bus or not being served through the front window of a take-out restaurant was humiliating, but nothing was more painful than being refused a decent education. No matter how much they argued or how long they complained, black families had to send their children to all-black schools, no matter how far away. Many buildings were dilapidated, even dangerous. Textbooks were few, worn, and out-of-date; there were no supplies, no after-school programs, school lunches, sports equipment. Underpaid teachers were overburdened trying to make do.
The demand to integrate public schools grew into a nationwide civil rights movement to eliminate all racist law: to have the right to vote, the right to choose the neighborhood you wanted to live in, to sit in any vacant seat in a public place. Marches, protests, countermarches, and counterprotests erupted almost everywhere. It was an extraordinary time when people of all races and all walks of life came together. When children had to be braver than their parents; when pastors, priests, and rabbis left their altars to walk the streets with strangers; when soldiers with guns were assigned to keep the peace or to protect a young girl. Days full of loud, angry, determined crowds; and days deep in loneliness. Peaceful marches were met with applause in some places, violence in others. People were hurt and people died. Students and civil rights workers were hosed, beaten, jailed. Strong leaders were shot and killed. And one day a bomb was thrown into a church, killing four little girls attending Sunday school.
In the following pages from the forthcoming book Remember: The Journey to School Integration, I have imagined the thoughts and feelings of some of the children who integrated public schools, recalling a time in American life when there was as much hate as there was love; as much anger as there was hope; as many heroes as cowards. A time when people were overwhelmed with emotion and children discovered new kinds of friendships and a new kind of fear. The joy I felt in 1954, when the Supreme Court decided the Brown case, was connected to those generous strangers I had met the year before, and even now wind-dried sheets can summon up my memory of what that decision did and what it means for all our futures.