On March 7, 1965, before my grandmother could quickly change the channel from the evening news, I caught a glimpse of white men on horseback in Selma, Ala., beating people who looked like me. Astonished, I turned to my grandmother: “Why?” She shrugged and changed the subject.
As a black student from Ohio, I had never seen brutal racism or thought much about skin color. My relatives and teachers protected me from the painful realities of racial hatred. It wasn’t uncommon for adults to keep secret the stories of our agonizing past — slavery, Jim Crow, legal injustice and Southern terror — fearing it would make children feel either inferior or rebellious enough to stir up unnecessary trouble. My parents voted and owned property; my history books presented sanitized versions of history; and the police officer who visited my school was always friendly. The sheltering was an effort to put the past behind us. Even amid the horrifying images from Edmund Pettus Bridge, the adults around me wouldn’t provide answers. In frustration, I decided to head south to find out for myself.
I joined an integrated group of students from Ohio State University, where I was a freshman, going south to meet Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., who was leading the drive for voting rights. I thrust myself into the world of Jim Crow, naïve to the murderous vigilantism that enforced the rules of segregation. But white Southerners weren’t the only ones who would shatter my wall of innocence. Black Southerners distanced themselves from our cause, uninterested in stirring a pot that they knew could easily boil over with racial violence. And one of the biggest shocks came after I returned to Ohio. As I headed south with my friends in a pea-green jalopy, I did not know that, upon returning home, the emotional pain of Northern racism would wound as deeply as the threats of physical harm in the South.
Most of the students in our group had never ventured far from Ohio, so we proudly told our friends that we were going south to be with Dr. King, as though when we crossed the Mason-Dixon line he would be standing there with out-stretched arms. Instead of heading for Selma, however, our team leaders answered an invitation to aid a church group who needed volunteers for a May voter registration drive in Brownsville, Tenn.
We arrived on a Saturday, just before sundown. The black churchgoers who hosted us sternly warned not to venture out after dark. But we had a better idea. On the way, we had seen a flashing neon light advertising a local bar. As soon as our hosts had gone to bed, we sneaked out to drink beer and pass the night dancing the Funky Chicken. We walked into the bar laughing and joking: three guys – one black, one white, and one Hispanic – two blond white girls, and me. We headed to the jukebox in the corner, but just as a nickel was inserted to get things rolling, a white man with a strange drawl snatched the plug out of the wall. “Get them niggahs,” he hollered.
We bolted through the door so fast that I didn’t feel my feet touch the ground. One of the guys in our group lifted me and threw me in the car, barely waiting for the door to close before taking off. The friend we had ribbed for having a souped-up car with large racing wheels was now a hero. The men chasing us in pickup trucks could not catch us.
The next morning, our hosts – unaware of our encounter at the bar – warned us never to go out in an integrated group because the KKK was active in town. It was the first time I ever encountered the notion that being the wrong color could get you killed, and that some police officers shouldn’t be trusted. At my first protest march, when white cops with dogs arrived and ordered us to disperse, I was the only one who broke ranks. Accustomed to obeying authority figures, I am ashamed to admit that I ran and hid out of fear, and watched my colleagues get arrested from the back of a truck.
During our two weeks in Brownsville, we gave speeches about voting rights in black barber shops and beauty salons, encouraging locals to register to vote. Initially, we were puzzled by their indifference. They would stare at us, occasionally give a polite nod, but generally show little interest in what we had to say. We didn’t understand why we – already free to easily access the ballot box — were more excited about the impending Voting Rights Act than the people who stood to gain from it most. Little did we know that 25 years earlier, when members of the newly formed Brownsville NAACP had attempted to register to vote, a white mob had murdered the local NAACP secretary, Elbert Williams, and drove the other NAACP members out of town. Black people courageous enough to register ran the risk of being killed, thrown off their land or having their homes burned down.
A week into our trip, we learned we were considered Northern trouble-makers and we had landed in a danger zone for which we were completely unprepared. One night after church, a group of white locals set up a roadblock to trap us, a tactic that had led to beatings and even deaths of other activists in the South. Once again, our fast jalopy saved us, breaking through the barrier. But our nerves were frazzled. That was when I began having nightmares about men on horseback, like the ones in Selma I saw on the TV, circling our homes and shooting us as we ran. Fortunately one student had the foresight to bring bottles of Nervine, a tonic advertised on TV claiming to calm down jumpy nerves. It worked just as well as the alcohol we were ordered not to bring.
After two weeks of heart-throbbing anxiety, I was elated to return home to our familiar Northern environs. But I quickly discovered that what was on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line was no safe haven. While the racism of the South had rattled my nerves, racism in the North would bruise my soul. Soon after we returned from Brownsville, I called a white friend who had shared a room and a bottle of Nervine with me during our trip, and announced I was coming over to visit. There was a pause and then she said, “We don’t allow coloreds in our sorority house.” I was crestfallen. Down South she was my friend; up North, a stranger.
My experience in the South inspired me to write my first newspaper story, which would lead to a life-long career. I shared the discovery of my newfound passion with the dean of the journalism department, hoping to receive advice and encouragement. Instead, without a second thought, he told me that I shouldn’t bother pursuing a career in journalism – a colored woman would never make it as a reporter. These encounters seemed more characteristic of the small Southern town I had fled than the Northern city I had grown up in. During my childhood, I had been blinded to the bigotry silently affecting my experience.
I learned that just because racism isn’t blatant, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That remains true today. Some 50 years after the voting rights bill was signed, there are efforts to dismantle the significant progress it made in diversifying the American electorate. Today, young black Americans are even more likely to vote in congressional elections than their white peers, and the racial voting gap among older Americans has narrowed. In response, many Southern states – and some in the North – have instituted more sophisticated voting barriers like voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect minority voters. Black and Hispanic voters also face longer lines at polling booths, because fewer poll workers and voting machines are allocated to precincts that serve their neighborhoods. These more covert tactics are replacing the old-fashioned barriers that the Voting Rights Act abolished, like literacy tests and grandfather clauses.
Though it was just two states away from my hometown, Tennessee seemed as foreign to me as the Soviet Union when I traveled there in 1965. But my ties to the state were stronger than I knew. Just two generations earlier, my own family had called Tennessee home — until racism ran them out of town, too. The Reynoldses had the misfortune to live in Pulaski, Tenn., the same town that gave birth to the KKK in 1865. My great-grandfather, Cpl. Smith Reynolds, was born a slave in Pulaski and served in the Civil War in the Union Army. He was captured by Confederate troops but was freed shortly at the war ended.
Because of the family tradition of keeping secrets, I didn’t learn about my Southern roots until my cousin Edward Reynolds Davis wrote a book about it, “Whispers from African Hollow.” Though my great-grandfather risked his life for the Union, he could not vote and was denied his military pension, Davis wrote. Injustices like that help explain why some families keep secrets, thinking it wiser to look ahead to a hopeful future rather than reflecting on a painful past. But secrets have a way of coming out, and history has a way of affecting our future, especially when we try to ignore it. At least in the realm of voting rights, I hope we aren’t destined to repeat it.
* Correction: This piece originally misstated the date the KKK was founded. It was founded in 1865.
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