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The Journey to School Integration

ISSUE:  Winter 2004

Whenever I see sheets drying on the line or smell gumbo simmering on the stove, a flood of memories comes to me. In 1953 when I traveled in the rural South with a group of students, we received the generosity of strangers—African Americans who took us in when there were no places for nonwhites to eat or sleep. They were strangers who gave up their beds, dressed them in brilliant white linen smelling of mulberry and pine. They fed us from their gardens and were so insistent on not being paid, we had to hide money in the pillow slips so they would find it long after we were gone. These were country people, or city people denied adequate education, relegated to a tiny balcony area in a movie theater, backs of buses and separate water fountains, menial jobs or none. Like me, they were ordinary people. Yet, although their lives were driven by laws that said “No, not here,” “No, not there,” “No, not you,” racial segregation had not marked their souls.

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 Textbooks were few, worn, and out-of-date; there were no supplies, no after-school programs, school lunches, sports equipment.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.


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