While love-binging Hippies of the 1960s were spreading anti-Vietnam Conflict messages, other groups, much like Hippies but less paisley prints and sunshine; it was the student-led Freedom Fighters that were spreading messages of equality. Fueled by the injustices of the time; during the Civil Rights Era, the Freedom Fighters were an organized group of brilliant intellects; college students whose staunch opinions about racism and inequality thrust their accounts of oppression into history books. However, their stories are often hidden in the pages of unopened or unwritten textbooks.
But, one Sunday afternoon, I got schooled. I met a lady, 72 years of age. Her face and stature are of a woman in her 50s. Her hair combed in a way that allowed her face to show its fullness. Her ponytail pinned to the back of her head. A few loose strands, that escaped the grasp of her bobby pins, swept across her neck. She greeted me with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek, made welcomed by the mutual acquaintance of a third party. She, unbeknownst of my intentions, asked me to join her in the family room. The TV is tuned to a courtroom drama. The banging sounds from a wooden gavel and brash tone of Judge So-and-so is no match for my excitement as I tell her,
“I’m so happy to meet you. I’ve heard great things about you. You are an impressive woman.”
She paused, her eyebrows arched and her doe eyes widened as though I’d taken her by surprise. Quickly, she chuckled and then I began.
I fast forward through a flurry of questions of getting-to-know you, so that I could get to the heart of the matter; the most pertinent query of them all, “How was it? How was it being a Freedom Fighter?” She is reluctant and quiets herself. Her eyes become fixed on a wall at the farthest corner of the room. I feel alone, even just for a brief moment. Our previous conversation and jolts of hearty laughter and jokes paused and the room fell silent. The only sounds now were from commercials serving as a brief intermission before she would start up dialogue again. She met my eyes and in a slower speech, she admitted, “these kids just don’t know what it was like.” The next few sentences would offer stinging, painful visuals that my generation and those that follow, are far too young or too ignorant to know or understand. Hot coffee poured on her clothes and skin, mucus-saliva mixed spit hurled into her face, angry dog mobs biting at her flesh, unlawful imprisonment, college expulsion and the prickling sensation from a high-powered fire hose rushing over her body from head to toe. Yet, she survived. Not much of her younger life would she divulge, but she granted me access to one particular event that led her to a life of advocacy.
From birth to age 9, she lived in a small, rural town in North Louisiana. Her best friend was a White female. They laughed. They played. They argued. They fought. They were much like sisters than friends. And, like sisters, they were punished in similar fashion. Following a series of childish antics in the front yard, her grandmother would hand down their sentence; sit in the hot sun until their little hides baked and they “grew some sense.” But, when they were friendly again, she and her friend would enter storefronts, at the entrance…together. They would play in the same neighborhoods…together. They would ride the bus in the same section…together. Segregation was just a word not yet realized in her hometown. It wasn’t until, next year, when she moved to a bustling metropolis that she would find out the truth firsthand.
She walked into an ice cream parlor, likely hot from the South’s treacherous Summer humidity. The attendant, as she described, “looked at me then walked around my seat about three times and told me to take a seat at the end of the counter.” Without much thought, she did as she was told and vacated the seat. Minutes later, a White, female child, about her age, sat in her former chair, looked in her direction and stuck out her tongue. Her fiery temper was ferocious for a child of 10. She leaped from her barstool and open-handed slapped her taunting victim. It was the same likely treatment she would have rendered her foes back home. But, she was no longer home; she was in a world much different from the small community she had known. The police was called and she was subsequently escorted from the premises. And, thus became the start of her conquest to end the subjugation of Black Americans.
At this moment, her thoughts had become scattered. But, I maintained my focus, soaking up her memories like chamois leather (AKA a shammy); gripping each word, sentence and paragraph and not letting go a single drop. I followed her timeline as she skipped the next 20 years of her life; after the bus rides, after the boycotts, after the protests. To Motherhood. She was a mother of four children.
Her son, elementary aged, had fallen ill to pneumonia. Previously, he was selected as a player for the local recreation softball team. When he recovered, the two would drive to the center only to learn that he was cut from the team. That impassioned spirit she had exhibited as a child would soon resurface. This time, no physical slapping. Instead, she would deliver a slap in the face to the entire city’s recreational system without laying one finger on anyone. As a result, single-handedly, she organized her own softball team. In addition to random boys she met in her neighborhood, her team was comprised of other players also cut from the rec team. It was all done in just 3 days! She amazed even herself; acquiring birth certificates and consent forms within the deadline.
But, what now? A new team with no experience. She was straight out the gate and had basically struck out:
- She is a woman.
- She is a Black woman.
- She and her team (predominately Black with two White boys) were poor from the “other side of the tracks.”
Some had never hit a ball and some were scared to catch a ball. The team had no official uniform, just cut-off jeans and tee shirts. Until, she called upon her skills she acquired while enrolled in Home Economics courses. It was the degree she pursued before being kicked out of the university. Their uniforms were top notch. Unlike the other teams, she even designed warm-up gear for her boys. She took her craft a step further and created cheerleading outfits. It was now a family affair. Her daughter and her friends could partake in the game from the sidelines. She gushed, “they were the prettiest things.” They sported fringes along the bottoms of their skirts, a fringe apiece on their boots with boleros to match.
Her boys (as they were referred multiple times) practiced many days until nightfall; at the field and even at her home. Tossing, diving, dipping, catching and most of all, building their self-esteem and mental strength. It was as if she had returned to the trenches in enemy territory yet steadfast in patience and vigor like it was during her Freedom Fighting days. She often told them,
“you have to understand that there are verbal rulings from three people in the world you can’t change; a teacher’s grade, a police officer’s charge and a referee’s call.”
With that in mind and their skill level, that hodge-podge team of “rejects” would go on to win many, and lose very few. By the season’s end, they finished second place in the tournament.
The tiny hairs on my arms awakened and stood in attention. Her stories are remarkable. Her life experience is undeniable. Six hours had passed and I found myself extremely fortunate to have spent each passing minute with this American Heroine.
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