I was raised in the segregated South. During the struggle for civil rights, blacks conducted nonviolent marches in many Southern cities. My dad, who served in the Army National Guard in Alabama, often stood between black marchers and the Ku Klux Klan to prevent violence.
The marches were the "big picture" of the civil rights struggle. There were many small events, however, that signaled the end of segregation. Gradually, whites accepted blacks in ways that represented real social change.
In the lives of all Southerners there came a time when change registered. A time when things stopped being as they had been and started being as they were going to be. It happened for me in 1968 when I was 10.
It was a late summer Saturday afternoon. Mother realized she needed a loaf of bread. We got in the car and drove to the business district only to find the stores had already closed. She said we'd have to do without bread until Monday since the stores were also closed on Sunday. We were on our way home when she recalled that she had heard of a store in the black section of town. It might still be open. "Lock your door," Mother told me, and we headed for a section of town we'd only heard about.
The white folks called the black neighborhood of town "the colored line." It was exclusively black. Whites never drove there. If a black person worked as a domestic for a white family, that person got a ride from another black person. There were no cabs in the small town. It would have been considered scandalous for a white person to drive a black person to his or her home in "the colored line."
Here it was dusk on a Saturday evening and Mother was intentionally driving to "the colored line." I was worried about what might happen to us. Certainly it was dangerous for a white woman and a child to go to such an area, I thought. Would the blacks kill us? Would other whites kill us if they found out we had gone to "the colored line"? It was a scary time for a kid.
As Mother drove slowly into the colored neighborhood, we watched people through our car windows. Black people worked on their lawns and sat out on their porches to relax and read newspapers. "Looks safe," I remember telling Mother. She said nothing as she was searching for the convenience store.
Finally we found it. It was open. Mother pulled the car into the small parking lot. But how were we going to get the bread? One of us would have to get out and walk into the store. The blacks who saw us would know we had money. Maybe it was too dangerous.
Mother and I sat there in the car looking at each other. Should she send me into the store? Should she go herself? White people sitting in a car in front of a black store soon got the attention of passersby. They looked at us as though we must be lost or out of our minds. We looked back at them. No one knew what to do.
A young black man finally walked up to Mother's window. She rolled the window down only an inch or so.
"Can I help you?" the young man asked.
"I'd like a loaf of bread, but I can't get out of the car," Mother said.
"I'll be happy to bring it to you," he replied. Mother passed him the money through the small opening in the window.
The young man took the money, ran into the store, and quickly returned with the loaf of bread and the change. Mother would have to roll the window down further to take the bread. She had been sweating about what to do next.
As the young black man stood by the car door with the bread and the change, Mother rolled her window all the way down. I thought for sure the man would pull her from the car and rob her. Instead, he simply gave her the bread and the change. Mother gave him back the change as a tip for bringing out the bread. He was grateful and so were we.
A large group of blacks had assembled near the store and witnessed the transaction. With our bread in the car, Mother pulled away from the store. The young man who had helped us smiled and waved goodbye. We smiled and waved back.
Once we were safely away from "the colored line," Mother and I breathed easier. We had our bread and there had been no incident. More important, no white people had witnessed our act.
That day of fear, so long ago, seems silly now. It seems even sillier that such acts were ever thought to be dangerous. But back then it took courage for Mother to do something as simple as buy bread from a black convenience store. Our views changed that day. It was a small sign of much bigger changes to come.