It was a pretty simple task: You stood around in the front of Woodlawn Baptist Church to make sure nobody of the wrong color wandered in by mistake. Dad let me stay outside with the men. He liked having me around, and maybe he figured I’d learn something.
Color guard was an important job, because colored folks trying to attend a white church were bound to create trouble. We had one try every now and then – not when I was out there, but I heard about it – and they were advised to go worship with their own kind.
Churches were known to split over the matter of whether to invite coloreds. The men – at least when I was around – avoided the less polite word for black people. They didn’t seem to hate coloreds or want to harm them. They just didn’t want them in our schools and restrooms. Or eating in our restaurants. Or, God forbid, dating their daughters.
On one color guard morning, I had just come from Sunday School, where we’d sung, “Jesus loves the little children. All the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…”
Something felt wrong. There was no moment of great revelation, where I understood the evils of segregation and bought in to the entire civil rights movement. The grownups around me didn’t seem to hate black people so much as the Communists, who were using them.
Sure, Dad got regular phone calls from Police Commissioner Bull Connor – because of his role with the bus system and because, as Connor told him, “I can’t trust any of these people over here.” I also remember how excited he was when he got to eat next to black businessman A.G. Gaston.
No, it wasn’t the coloreds so much as the Communists stirring them up, making them discontent, and trying to overthrow our way of life so they could take away our freedom of worship. At least in Dad’s mind.
Jesus loves the little children…
What about the children that might want to come to our church with their parents? Would Jesus love a colored child in my Sunday school class? Would she have a disease? Would one of them cut me with a knife?
I wasn’t sure, and went on with my life. But the image of Color Guard duty became one of two snapshots in my mind that changed me in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years. The other snapshot was captured downtown, in front of Loveman’s department store.
Mother and I had taken the bus downtown to do some shopping, and we always looked for a seat around the second row, a safe distance from the colored section in the back. The long seat in the very back looked like a more fun place to be, but that was out of the question.
There, outside Loveman’s, there was a little girl my age, and she was crying. She pulled at her mother’s skirt.
“But I’ve got to go,” she said.
“Shh. Be quiet now,” her mother said.
I asked Mother, “What’s wrong with her?”
“There aren’t any colored restrooms here. She’ll have to wait.”
“Why can’t she use the same ones we do?”
“Because they’re whites only. Hush now.”
Hush. That was the key word that made everything OK.
Red and yellow, black and white…
There was no getting away from it. Water fountains were clearly labeled “White” and “Colored,” and the ones labeled “Colored” always seemed to be dirty. I hated to think what the inside of the colored restroom would look like.
But the changes were coming, and there was no holding back the tide. The Civil Rights Bill was about to become law. The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” had come down when I was about seven months old. Bull Connor and George Wallace were running out of time. Arthur Shores, a Birmingham black attorney who had to finish his law education through a correspondence school, made it all the way to the Surpreme Court in 1955 in his effort to allow black students into the University of Alabama.
And while I lived in a pocket where the racism seemed more tempered, there was most assuredly hate. In 1963, Shores’ home was firebombed in retaliation for efforts to get black parents to register their children at white schools. It was only 11 days before the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls.
They are precious in his sight.