Things Hidden

First there was Greensboro. A walk through the museum there was a walk through my childhood. I have sat at lunch counters like that, I have seen my mother’s poll tax receipt, I have bought cokes for a nickel from machines very much like the one in the museum. Who knew that coke made one hundred eleven machines that could fit in the wall, so that “white” and “colored” would buy from different sides of the same machine, each from their segregated waiting rooms at the bus or train station? Or that the price was five cents on the white side, but ten cents on the other side? Did I ever buy a coke, or did my parents ever buy me a coke, from a machine like that? There would have been no way to know. What can I not see today? How am I still blind? And what is intentionally hidden, like the other side of the coke machine?

Kyrie, eleison.

On Sunday morning we were in Atlanta, and I stepped inside the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church:

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by thy help I’ve come.

It felt very comfortable, like so many other Baptist churches I have been in during my life. The next day on to Albany, where we were inside another Baptist church – Mount Zion Baptist Church, now part of the Albany Civil Rights Museum. Again, just a normal Baptist church from that time in the south, a building with wonderful acoustics for congregational singing. On the walls were several posters telling the story of the Albany movement. The last one I read told the story of Kay Smith Pedrotti, white, and Gloria Ward, black. During the Albany movement both had spoken to the media as students, one supporting segregated schools, and the other the need for integration. In the 90s they met and rereconciled, a meeting Kay Smith Pedrotti called a “time of Gospel freedom.” I had to stifle the sobs that rose in my throat. Our churches remain as segregated as they were in the 60s, in all parts of the country. They are so much the same, yet so divided.

Christe eleison.

In Selma we walked across the Pettus bridge, imagining what it was like to see the state troopers waiting with clubs and tear gas, imagining the chaos that followed almost immediately. We learned that Bloody Sunday was not a relatively brief encounter after crossing the bridge, but that the violence went on all night long back in town. Nothing was sacred: troopers rode their horses into the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, knocking people into the baptistry.

How can I understand that in my lifetime (I was twelve years old at the time of Bloody Sunday) there were only 240 registered African-American voters out of a possible 15,000? How can I understand that those who tried to register usually lost their job?  Or that it became illegal for more than three people pf color to even meet and discuss voter registration? And that all of this was enoforced with state-sanctioned violence against non-violent protesters? And worst of all, that most of this was as invisible to whites as the other side of that coke machine.

Kyrie eleison.

When asked if she considered the Albany movement a failure or a success, Rutha Harris said, “…we have a black mayor…how could it be a failure when we have achieved so much that we fought for?” The civil rights movement of the sixties resulted in real, systemic change, and the results are visible throughout our country, north and south. On the other hand, “Segregation is alive and well in Selma,” said Joanne Bland, who participated as a child in Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery, and was often in jail. Systemic change, yes, but new systems follow that are also unjust. Slavery is replaced with Jim Crow; tear that down, and new structures achieve much the same thing. Selma is segregated, and so is the part of Pennsylvania where I live. I don’t see the reason why, but maybe I will find it on the other side of the coke machine. I just have to walk into the other waiting room and look.