Sonnie Hereford and his father walk into Fifth Ave. Elementary in Huntsville, making it the first integrated school in Alabama. I’d walk through those doors six years later, completely unaware of what had happened in 1963.
Southerners are marking events that happened 50 years ago when civil rights events exploded across my home state and others. I’m fascinated with the events themselves, but also curious about impacted families like mine.
Early June marked 50 years since George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door,” in response, President Kennedy’s speech sketching out a civil rights bill that very night, and in the early hours the next morning, Medgar Evers’ murder.
In the coming months, we’ll mark 50 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the horrific bombing of Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church that killed four girls in the church basement.
My great friend Bill Kimber was born June 11 in Birmingham’s South Highlands Infirmary, just a few miles from 16th St. Baptist Church. That was the same day that Wallace created his lasting image as an ardent segregationist on the University of Alabama campus.
I was born in Huntsville on July 7, just a few months ahead of the integration of Fifth Ave. Elementary School by Dr. Sonnie Hereford and his namesake son who I now count as a friend. It was the first school in Alabama to be integrated, and I would walk through those same doors as a first grader six years later.
There’s not much I can add to civil rights history that can’t be found in lots of other places, but I would like to know what was it like for my mother and Bill’s mother, and other young parents, bringing children into the world when that world as they knew it was being turned upside down.
Was it scary and daunting? Did they have sympathy for what the marchers and rights advocates were trying to accomplish? Or were they so busy with pregnancy they were insulated from it? After all, they were working-class white families, not completely immune from civil strife and turmoil, but obviously not impacted by Jim Crow like those marching and protesting and hoping for changes in laws that would change their lives.
When I was old enough to have conversations with her about it, my mother told me it scared her at first. I understand. The world that she’d known was changing dramatically. It would be one of the biggest and most important social upheavals in American history, and it was happening down the street.
I can just imagine Bill’s mother in her hospital bed, Wallace’s defiant words blaring through the television via the black and white evening newscast. What a world to bring a son into. In the long run, it was a better world. A world where Bill and I went to school with black kids and had black friends and those kids went to better schools.
My mother also told me she, at some point, began to understand the importance of the civil rights movement, and supported it. I’m not talking last year, but sometime in the 60s. As a single mother from a working-class family, I think she was in a position to understand what it meant to be oppressed, at least to some extent. She and other members of my extended family (Hi Cousin Pat!) were all-in supporters of civil rights and equal rights for women by the time I was old enough to have those conversations.
My mother, Muriel Isom, in the early 1940s.
While I sort of understand how she got there, I have no idea what that journey was like for our moms. Mine was a woman who grew up the child of a mill worker father and homemaker mother in segregated Alabama of the ‘30s and ‘40s, only to see change come roaring at her in the ‘50s and ‘60s faster than she probably imagined possible.
I’m proud, though, to come from a family that embraces it rather than resists it.