I was nine years old when I first heard the names Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
On December 1, 1955, a woman in Montgomery, Alabama, did something illegal.
She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. In Montgomery, Negroes were required to fill up the seats in a bus from the back to the front, and Whites from the front toward the back.
If all the seats were full, Negroes were required to stand if a White person wanted their seat.
Rosa Parks refused. She was arrested.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize a boycott, during which Negroes refused to ride the bus until the law was changed.
People all over the country were watching what would happen next.
Most of the kids at my school knew nothing about what was going on in Montgomery, but the few who did were divided. Some thought that the Negroes should stop making trouble. What did it matter where they had to sit on the bus? Others thought it was wrong to make people give up their seats. I wasn’t sure what to think.
The argument sometimes got heated.
If we give them that, what will they want next? Drink from the same water fountains?
Eat in the same restaurants? Live next door?
Do you want a Nigger sitting next to you in school?
None of those things seemed all that bad to me, but what did I know? Maybe I was missing something.
Dad said that people shouldn’t be treated differently because of the color of their skin.
How would I feel if I couldn’t eat in a restaurant or I had to go to a different school just because my face was brown? He hated segregation. But he was worried that if things moved too fast there would be violence.
He was right.
The boycotters in Montgomery were screamed at, spit on, attacked. Four Negro churches were firebombed.
So was King’s house.
I heard people say that King was a troublemaker, that he was stirring things up, that Negroes needed to be patient and not rush things, that they would only make things worse for themselves. What was their hurry?
But it was King’s words that moved me. This is what he said:
If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword”. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you”. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.
Meet violence with nonviolence, hate with love?
How could anyone whose house was just blown up be so forgiving?
And how could anyone disagree with what he said? I made up my mind. It was time for change. I had just formed my very first political opinion.
The boycott lasted more than a year, and Negroes won the right to sit anywhere they wanted on the bus. Little else changed in Montgomery.
But the Civil Rights Movement had begun, and it would not be stopped.
It would take a while for it to reach Waco, where Negroes still rode in the back of the bus.