Thursday could not come fast enough. For something to do, I spent more time on homework than I had ever done before, and when I wasn’t occupied with a paper to write or a math exercise, I was restless. I couldn’t sit still. I listened to the gramophone; I called my friends for a chat. I read books – so many books – and magazines and even the newspapers, though I didn’t pay too much attention to those, for fear of what I might find splashed across the front page.
On Wednesday the sixteenth – the day before I was due to leave for the protest march in Chicago – my father came into my room and told me that he would be away the following day. Great! I thought. At least he won’t be tempted to snoop around. He had a business meeting up in Montgomery and would be gone for the whole day. Mom was going to Aunt Sue’s, he said, so I would be left on my own.
“I don’t mind” I told him. “It’ll be fine. I’ll probably have homework to do anyway”. It was funny how easily the lies came, as if they were a native tongue. If I wasn’t so aware of the risks, of the dangers of what I was going to do - as a white girl joining a protest for Civil Rights for black people – the adrenaline rush would have been border lining excitement. I was nervous, yes. Who wouldn’t be? But that didn’t stop me. Equality meant more to me than that.
And then Thursday the seventeenth of November came, bright and crisp, but with a distinct chill in the air. The ocean blue sky was cloudless and the sun shone palely, the thin light not quite warming the air. I took a slow, deep breath, and finally – with movements replicating a sloth – I crawled out of bed. It was much more daunting now that it was finally here.
I dressed without really noticing what I was putting on. There was silence downstairs. My parents had already left. My stomach rumbled, though I was suddenly too nervous to eat. Instead, I fetched the satchel from the locked drawer in the chest and checked that I had everything I needed. Money, a change of clothes, basic toiletries. I pulled the bills out, rifling through them. $120, give or take. It would have to do, as it was all I had. My hands shook as I shut the clasp, and I raked my hand through my lank brown hair. I put the satchel on my bed and went to the adjoining bathroom. I swirled some of mom’s toothpaste around my mouth – my own toothpaste, along with my toothbrush, were in my satchel – and tugged the only brush I could locate through my hair. Then I returned to my bedroom and sat motionless at my desk, my heart hammering in my ears.
The hands of the clock on my bedside table were too slow, ticking past so casually, so at ease, when I felt as if everything was flying by. For once, I had no idea what to expect. Would I be shunted to one side, looked down upon – would the other protesters be afraid of me? Would they see me as a threat? And when we got to Chicago itself, what would happen then? I didn’t know how much time it would take. There was an awful lot of land between Greystone and Chicago. I would be crossing five state borders – Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and finally Illinois. I’d never been much further than Birmingham before. But the travelling didn’t bother me; the travellers did. I didn’t want them to think of me as the enemy, a beacon of violence and hatred. I wanted them to understand that I was an ally, not a threat. They needed to know that I was there to help, not to bear down on them with a noose and pitchforks. I knew that convincing them would be difficult, but it was a challenge I accepted.
I went to and from the bathroom, glugged orange juice from an open carton in the fridge, and nibbled at some fruit whilst I waited for the hands to reach 1PM. I flicked on the crackling radio, but switched it off quickly after I heard the familiar jingle of the Noon News Hour. I didn’t need to hear that, not today.
Finally, at half past twelve –after what seemed like a lifetime – I jumped up, grabbed my satchel, and ran down the stairs to the door. This was it. There was no going back now. I would meet Terry at the post office, get on the bus, and then wait until we reached Chicago. Then I would be taking part in a very important, very risky protest. I swallowed hard, trying to swallow back my fears with it. My heartbeat had accelerated to twice its’ normal speed, pounding against my ribs so that it hurt. Without giving myself time to think about pulling out, I yanked the door open, snatching my summer jacket from the peg in the hallway, and I stepped out of the house and out onto the street.
My feet were like lead as I treaded the somewhat familiar path down to the South side. Every step made my heart beat faster, my breath catch in my throat. My satchel bumped against my thigh as I walked, and I kept my head down. Left down Sunrise Avenue. Right and straight up ahead along Mayfair Street. Left again at Main Street, and due west down March Drive. I was nearly there now – and as I came closer, I could hear the bubbling of voices over the sound of traffic and birds in the sky. They were excited voices, and upon hearing these, I knew I had come to the right place. I didn’t dare look up, not just yet. Instead I carried on, following my ears, listening hard.
And I could see the post office. A tiny, ramshackle building, dirty white with a peeling wooden door and a piece of cardboard that said ‘Post Office’ over it in place of a proper sign. A smaller card in the window said ‘Colored Persons Only’, next to flyer that advertised an old couch that was for sale. Grouped in front of this sad-looking, dilapidated building were excitedly chattering protesters. All of them were black – no white person in sight. Some were younger than me, around Middle School age. Others were older than my parents, some even close to my grandparents’ ages. My throat was dry as I edged closer to them, and I worked to try and get my mouth to swallow.
My footsteps slowed, and I could feel several pairs of eyes on me. The noise had quietened; they were too busy looking at the newcomer, the white girl. I raised my head, and met a sea of suddenly hard, hostile faces. I recoiled, taking an automatic step back. I raised my hands in surrender; showing them I meant them no harm. A hefty-looking woman to my right sniffed audibly. I searched the faces, trying to find one I recognised. I was very aware that every last one of them was staring at me. A few of the smaller children had hidden themselves behind their parents. This did not help. What could I do to make them see I was an ally – not the enemy?
“Lydia!” A voice said behind me. It was Terry. I whirled around, and the eyes of the crowd followed me. Their expressions were shocked – but some were curious.
“It’s okay!” Terry explained to the crowd. “Lydia’s a friend o’ mine, she wants ta’ help. She ain’t like who ya’ think she is.” Some of the faces relaxed a little, as if to say, well, alright then, if you must bring a white girl with you then you must. Others were sceptical. I tried my best to act bravely.
Just then, a white man came down the sidewalk, whistling to himself. He didn’t notice us at first. He was wearing Klan robes without the pointed hood. A few members of the crowed turned, anxiety frozen on their faces. And then he saw us. His lip curled into a nasty, superior smirk. It made me want to slap him, and slap him hard. He stalked – there was no other way to describe it – up to where the majority of the group was gathered. The bottom of his garb brushed the sidewalk as he did so. Then, with a steely gaze, he spat at the feet of a young woman who had her long black hair in a braid down her back.
And, as if from nowhere, a man reached out from the middle of the group and punched him forcefully on the jaw. The young woman screamed. And the man punched the Klan member again, on the nose this time. He toppled off the edge of the sidewalk, into the road – and, swearing loudly, he scrambled to his feet, grabbed the other man by the collar of his shirt, and threw him away from himself as far as he could.
I was frozen on the sidewalk, unable to think nor move nor say anything. It terrified me. Was this what was really happening all over Alabama? All over the South of the United States? Terry moved closer to me, his hand closing over my forearm. I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene in front of me. It was too real. Too horrifying. The Klan member had disappeared, dripping blood onto his pure-white robes, swearing under his breath. The young woman was curled over the man who had been hit protectively, and she was sobbing. Several more members of the group were talking angrily to each other; others were frozen with fear just like I was. My palms were sweaty with terror and my breathing was irregular though somehow in time with my erratic heartbeat.
An old, rickety, off-white bus pulled into the gap in the sidewalk in front of us. The bus driver was black, and wore a navy cap low on his forehead. He got out of the driver’s cab and pushed open the squeaky, creaking bus doors. Then he spotted the man and woman near the post office. I could see now that the man had a deep gash on his forehead and the shadow of a bruise was forming across his right cheek. I bit my tongue to stop myself from screaming in outrage. The bus driver hobbled off the bus and made his way over to them. With the help of the young woman, the injured man was helped onto the bus. The others followed; some were shaking as they did so, holding onto the rail inside the bus with trembling hands.
My own legs were wavering as I took a step forward.
“It’s okay” Terry said to me in a low voice, gently pulling me forward. “Jus’ don’ try an’ think about it” I allowed myself to be lead onto the bus, my head spinning. I eased myself into an overstuffed seat next to Terry; I sat in the aisle seat.
Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes, willing myself to ignore the images that had branded themselves onto the insides of my mind, and instead tried to focus on what would happen when we finally reached Chicago.