I’m reposting this in honor of the great Aretha Franklin, whose funeral was today in Motown. This essay is not about Ms. Franklin, it is my first recollection of the civil rights movement. But the title is a tribute to her, the first Aretha I knew of as a child, and someone who had a profound influence on civil rights in America.
By Jay McAdams
I was in the 3rd grade when school desegregation began in Oklahoma City. The entire South had been protesting desegregation for nearly two decades, since the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which overturned the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that had ruled for “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. Angry mobs of white people had been held back by national guard troops at elementary schools, high schools, and even colleges across the South in the ‘50’s and ’60’s and now it was 1972 and The Supreme Court ordered bussing to force schools to end segregation. I understand all of this today as a middle-aged man, but at 8 years old I didn’t know any of this historical context. I just knew that it was fun to protest because it meant riding around town in the back seat of our Rebel convertible and holding up signs. It was like being in a parade. People honked and we waved. I was just a kid, so I only understood the issue from the POV of the adults around me, who were all Southern white conservatives. I understood that it was about racial tension between blacks and whites, but it only made sense if you bought into the premise that blacks were bad. But if you believed that to be the truth, then it made perfect sense to fight forced bussing. So we drove around for weeks after my mom got off work, with me and my sister holding up our handmade “Bomb Bussing” signs, which I was very proud of because I drew that stereotypical round bomb with the fuse, and I drew it perfectly.
But then, on the first day of bussing I got a different perspective. I remember very clearly that first day when black students were bussed to McKinley Elementary, my neighborhood school. As I walked to school that morning I came upon quite a scene. Parents were lined up in front of the school, shoulder to shoulder. The buses were parked there, full of frightened African American kids staring out of the windows at the not-so-welcoming crowd. Their parents weren’t there to protect them or comfort them. Just the angry white parents from the neighborhood. I remember a girl on the bus with her face pressed up against the glass in a mask of fear. I felt so badly for those kids. There were no police or screaming white people, nobody was shouting or doing anything overtly rude, yet it was palpably tense. Nobody was talking, and except for the wind, it was eerily silent. It was one of those movie moments, where everything seemed heightened with extreme close-ups and slow motion to the amplified sound of wind like in an old Clint Eastwood western. For months I’d been repeating the slogans of the adults in the room and the headlines on the news, but now I was seeing race relations for myself. They walked the children off the bus and into the school and we all stared as if they were aliens from another planet, as if we’d never seen black people before. My 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Jackson, was African American but somehow that seemed different.
When I got to my classroom Mr. Jackson had seated the new students randomly around the room. I sat next to a tall girl named Aretha. I could tell she was scared and I felt the need to try to make everything seem normal. I felt really sorry for the kids who were bussed in, so I made it a point to talk to Aretha at recess. Once the adults were out of the way, I realized that we were all just people. When you were eye to eye, it became clear pretty fast that we were all just kids. By the end of the day, Aretha and I were friends. I remember going home and reporting at the dinner table about my new friend Aretha. That day started off feeling very weird to me, but in the end it felt triumphant because of Aretha. Bussing wasn’t so bad after all. What had we been so scared of? A couple of years later, I’d be bussed to a mostly black school on the opposite side of town, but by then the controversy had died down and there was no hostile group of African American parents waiting to intimidate my bus full of white kids. There was no problem. And my 5th grade, just like my 4th and 3rd turned out just fine.
In my recollection, I am the hero, the omniscient 8-year old. In my memory I was the only one with empathy for the African American kids. But that must not actually have been the case. I couldn’t have been the only one seeing those terrified kids on the bus and feeling empathy for them. Maybe the reason those white parents were so quiet wasn’t because they were staring those little kids down to intimidate them, but rather because they too felt empathy for those visibly scared children. I hope that was the case.
I have only known a few people that I think to be truly color-blind, who just don’t see race when they look at someone. I want to be like that, but I am sometimes haunted by those headlines from my formative years. Most of us learned as kids to fear other races or nationalities or religions and no matter how ridiculous and reprehensible we find that as adults, it is hard to change what was imprinted in your youth. Today we know that racism does not come naturally to children, it is taught. At least the majority of us know that. Kids don’t naturally hate other kids because of race. They are taught that. They repeat what they hear from adults, like I did. Let’s just hope America’s parents have had the TV turned off for the last year. And that they will keep it off for the immediate future.