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Lessons in Civil Rights
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For thirty minutes, I sat in stunned silence as he ranted. Only when he let me out in front of a diner in southern Virginia was I able to breathe again. I wished I could have told him off. But closed into a car on unfamiliar roads with a hostile stranger, I thought it wise to keep quiet and stay safe.

My next ride was a long one, from Danville, Va., almost to Birmingham in a 18-wheel cotton truck empty of its load. When the friendly driver mentioned that he came from Pulaski, Tenn., I winced, knowing Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

Then the trucker surprised me. Paying for two school systems, one for whites and one for "coloreds," was a waste of money, he said. "Hell, I don't care if they go to school with my daughters as long as they don't take our jobs."

Mike O'Malley '88
Ekua Holmes

At 4 a.m. on a pitch-black rural road somewhere in northern Alabama, I stepped down from that truck wondering whether I understood a single thing about race relations. In class it had been easy to believe the theories of sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, who said that among opponents of integration, the wealthy fear job loss while the poor fear intermarriage. Out here on the road, the drivers of a Caddy and a 18-wheeler had instantly stood that idea on its head.

I was getting smarter—sort of. When the desk clerk at the Montgomery YMCA asked too many questions as I checked in, I said only that I was "doing research." Then I blew it by asking around town for help finding Clifford Durr, a white lawyer who took civil rights cases.

That night the FBI came calling. Nevertheless, I spent the next two days interviewing Alabama Gov. John Patterson, newspaper editor Grover Hall, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, one of the organizers of the bus boycott. As we shared sandwiches in his home, the blinds closed for security, Abernathy told me, "Protecting against hate all the time is no way to raise a family."

From Fred Gray, a black lawyer, I learned that movements have life cycles. The intense activity of the boycott had been replaced by a period of quiet reflection, he said, especially for people who had sacrificed for the cause. He believed that many whites would go to their graves still hating the "uppity Negroes" who had forced integration.

But my biggest lesson from Gray ran along more practical lines. I'd been waiting for some money my parents had wired. Each day the YMCA clerk said he hadn't seen it, and he said the same that evening when I came in from my interviews. One of the FBI agents who'd come to my door was standing at the desk, so I quickly headed to my room.

Halfway up the stairs I spotted a Western Union envelope lying on a step. It had been opened. Inside was my $75 money order. I went to bed feeling scared but still planning to do more interviews in Montgomery, stay one more night, and then leave for Atlanta for my appointment with Dr. King.

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