I grew up in low country South Carolina in a time that is now almost unimaginable. I could write a book on the joys I experienced during that time.
However, now looking back, I can see with painful clarity the cracks in the foundations of that world. The biggest crack was the forced separation of black and white people.
My white parents had good relations with all races. They had many friends, who were black.
Miss Mary, who helped my mother with ironing, came to our house with her little daughter, Hannah. Hannah and I would play together, while Miss Mary ironed and my mother hung up the freshly pressed clothes.
Miss Azzie worked for some relatives who lived in the country. Miss Azzie was a great cook and an integral part of every family celebration. Miss Azzie’s family would come and we’d all eat together.
Miss Helen worked as a cleaning lady. Spring and fall cleaning were not considered done until we had had a visit from Miss Helen, who made the house shine. On breaks, she would sit on the porch in the breeze with my mother and share snacks and sweet tea.
Those relationships were not just about working women. Those women became friends. We visited in their homes. Hannah inherited all the clothes I grew out of. Delivering the clothes and watching her try them on was like having another Christmas!
We also saved all our papers for Miss Azzie, who didn’t get the paper. My mother always included some freshly canned preserves and other things, and we would visit.
Miss Helen also had a daughter, Cynthia. Some of my clothes went to her. We also delivered gifts of food and spent time visiting with her family.
As much as our world connected, the world around us was divided. There were separate public bathrooms for black and white people. There were separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office and dentist’s office. There were separate water fountains.
We never went out to eat or rode public transportation, so I didn’t know things were separate there too.
I asked my mother why things would be separate. She looked uncomfortable and somehow sad. She said, “because that is the law. That’s the way it is.” I didn’t ask her then if she thought it was right. But I remember the sad look.
I remember being baffled when a special board meeting was called at our all white church to consider whether a black friend of our neighbors could attend the wedding of their daughter. After much heated discussion, it was decided she could, but only if she sat on the back row.
By the time I went to high school, my view of the world broadened. I was beyond baffled when I began work at the local hospital. I was horrified!
All the white patients were in private or semiprivate rooms in the air conditioned front part of the hospital. All the black patients were in large wards at the back of the hospital. Each ward had only one fan.
When I questioned how this could be, I was told matter of factly this was the “way things are supposed to be.” I did not know what to do, other than what I was called to do. I cared for those in the back rooms, not only seeing them for themselves, but also realizing they were reflections of black people I had come to love.
My senior year in high school, integration finally reached the small town where I lived. The people in town began to talk about a bunch of “northerners” who were coming to make sure some black students got moved from their schools into our all white school.
As the word spread, there were reactions from both black and white. Not all black students wanted to go to a predominately white school. Not all white students were welcoming.
I began to see that forced choices could be as bad as no choices. By the time I left for college, the new law had been enforced. But the law could not change hearts.
On the day Miss Helen came for fall cleaning that year, she and my parents sat on the porch, discussing the changing times and all the open hostilities that had resulted.
I remember my father saying, “What are we going to do?” Miss Helen said, “We’re gonna stay right here and keep loving each other, just like Jesus do.”
A simple statement, among believing friends, who recognized their skin color was only an outer covering of an inside spirit drawn together by The One Who created all of them.
With college came civil rights demonstrations and other changes. Some of those changes came amidst anger and violence. But out of the midst of it came the stronger voice of Love spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King.
He lived his life to the end, espousing change without violence … Love without hate … different and yet the same. He had a dream. In time, others had the same dream and worked to make the dream a reality.
Some years after his death, my husband and I visited the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta where we were able to join pioneers of the past in walking the path to freedom.
As we walked among the statues and heard recordings of their words of hope for a better world, I felt like I was walking with my parents, Miss Mary, Hannah, Miss Azzie and Miss Helen, ordinary people who never would have marched, but still kept the flame of Love alive.
Today, as we remember Dr. King, may we look a little closer at the world around us.
Let us not dismiss injustice as “just the way it is.”
May we recognize that just making laws does not change hearts.
May we not forget how easy it was for a whole society to attempt to separate those God created to be together.
May we continue to be thankful for those who stood up and sat down and refused to let the darkness win.
May we join them in bringing light. May we continue loving each other, “just like Jesus do.”