I’m currently working on the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, which began sixty years ago this December. (I’m not sure yet when it will run.) As the round number anniversaries of the seminal events of the civil rights movement come around, there will be lots of public reminiscences.
One of the reasons I decided to create “Sleeper Ave.” is my belief that the America we experience today has its roots in the America my parents’ generation reinvented in the aftermath of World War II.
I was nine years old when, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a White man. I probably didn’t hear about that event right away. It wasn’t covered in most local newspapers at first, and television news was in its infancy. But as the boycott wore on, and was increasingly met with violence, including the firebombing of the homes of Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., it became a national story.
For the Sleeper Ave. story, I’ve mixed my own limited memories of that time with things that I learned later. What I do remember is that for me it was a time of early political awakenings. It was no easy thing for a young boy to make sense of the world we lived in, the joyful certainty of youth giving way slowly to the terrifying realization that the world was an imperfect and potentially dangerous place, especially if you had the wrong skin color or practiced the wrong religion.
It’s not easy today to remember how high the stakes were for that early civil rights movement. Those courageous men and women literally put their lives on the line; many of them were jailed, abused and beaten, and some, including King, died for the cause.
Today we’re seeing the beginnings of a resurgent movement, as the “Black Lives Matter” banner is raised in response to racist policing practices and the cynical rollback of hard-won voting rights across the country.
It will be interesting to see if a new generation of civil rights leaders emerges with both the moral authority and the organizational ability to seriously confront today’s issues.