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The First Demonstration (1961)

In the Fall of 1961 I was involved with my future husband who is African American. From him and others I began hearing a lot about the current and past history of Black people in this country. It was history I had never heard in school. I began to read books by Black people about Black people. I was shocked, outraged. But I wonder if I was really so very surprised. My experiences with Sanora told me that maybe I knew more than I realized. If you don't want to know about something it is easy to deny uncomfortable facts that are right in front of you. Now I was no longer allowed the luxury of ignorance.

Freedom Riders circa 1964


About this time there were increasing numbers of demonstrations both locally and around the country led by groups such as CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), NAACP, (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and SCL (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). I don't remember just when I became aware of the Black Muslims, but I'm pretty sure that awareness came later.
One day I read that a CORE chapter was meeting that evening only blocks from our apartment in Brooklyn. I decided to attend. I walked alone to the meeting held in a church recreation hall. Most of the people were Black but there were a significant number of white people there too. I didn't know a soul but I was welcomed warmly. The meeting turned out to be a planning meeting for the ride to Baltimore Maryland that was taking place the next morning. Would I join? Wild horses couldn't have kept me from it. To be able to do something about injustice was an intoxicating idea. That night I scarcely slept.

We were assigned to small groups that would travel in cars. The purpose was two-fold: the first was to pick up some college students from Baltimore; secondly, we would head to the eastern shore of Maryland to a Black Baptist church for a rally with a Maryland branch of CORE. Maryland had segregation laws so I guessed we were going to support them in their de-segregation efforts. A third assignment was to stop in restaurants on the way down on Highway 50 in Maryland and try to get served. We were strongly warned not to provoke unduly and specifically not to get arrested on this trip. We were in effect just supposed to annoy the segregationists politely, naively as if we didn't know about their laws. Then we would leave, also politely. A mosquito mission we called it.

Highway 50 was the main highway between New York and Washington D.C. Many African diplomats had been humiliated going back and forth. They couldn't eat at the segregated restaurants or use public bathrooms or stay at motels along that highway. Of course this was commonplace to any Black person traveling anywhere in the South. By attacking Highway 50 we might get more publicity because of the VIPs who couldn't get service. Maybe even support from the United Nations in New York.

In the back seat with me were two other women, both Black. One of them, Marjorie, is still a friend. All of us were in our twenties. We were conservatively well-dressed and well-groomed in suits, stockings, purses. We didn't want any racists calling us hoodlums, bohemians, or riff-raff. I don't think "hippy" had come into the vocabulary yet. We wanted to look and act in the most responsible way possible. The two men, also well-dressed, were in the front seats. Arnie and Ed were white and veterans of some pretty hairy attempts at integration.

They had been on the integrated interstate buses riding into the deep South where segregation was at its worst and most violent. (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia). One of them had been on a bus that had pulled into a Greyhound Bus Station in one of those states. Waiting for them was a group of white men with clubs. I don't know if they were members of the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens' Council. They overturned the bus, set it on fire and beat up any of the Freedom Riders they could lay their hands on. That time several riders landed in the hospital. Other times these hoodlums killed their victims. I began to sense the reality of what I might encounter. I had never ever been close to violence of any kind. My parents didn't even spank us!

As we drove through New Jersey south towards Maryland, Arnie told us story after story of adventures he had had during his 2 years of working with civil rights activists. Arnie had a very sharp sense of humor and he made many of the racists he encountered sound so idiotic, so funny. We laughed a lot during that ride. I think a good deal of that laughter was our increasing nervousness about what we were heading into.

The White Sail Inn was (maybe still is) located just south of the New Jersey border in Maryland on Highway 50. It had a Colonial style décor with quaint ruffled curtains. Those curtains made it possible for us to enter and even seat ourselves before the staff noticed that we were a racially mixed group. We sat at a large round table set with tablecloth and cloth napkins, silverware and ice water in a pitcher. Arnie was our designated leader. He quietly suggested we turn our glasses right side up. He stood and formally poured water into each glass. We were silent, although Arnie suggested we act normally and talk quietly. We didn't feel normal enough to do that and we sat silently, waiting. No one came near us though Arnie signaled to a waitress several times. She looked away quickly and scurried into the kitchen. He murmured to us that she was undoubtedly calling the highway patrol now. We sat. Some of us sipped water. We waited. We had been told what would probably happen. Eventually someone would tell us that we were not welcome in this restaurant. Then the Maryland "squatter's" law would be read to us. After that we'd have the choice of leaving or getting arrested. We planned to leave.

Suddenly the door opened and a uniformed Highway Patrol officer entered wearing knee-high polished black boots. The boots made loud noises crossing the wooden floor. We all tensed. He stopped at our table next to Arnie and said in a perfectly reasonable voice that we weren't welcome at this restaurant and for us to leave. Arnie then asked him if there weren't a law "or something" that should be read to us. The officer looked annoyed and signaled something to the waitress. She came up and stood by me with a piece of paper in her hand. She was a plump middle-aged white woman with curly gray hair. A grandmotherly type, I thought. (the way I look now!) As she read the law in a dull monotone voice I stared at her as if she had dropped from Mars. This woman and that police officer were telling me that I wasn't welcome in a perfectly ordinary restaurant. I looked down into my lap. I wasn't wearing a bikini or anything weird. I knew I wasn't drunk or disorderly. What was happening here? They were telling me that
I couldn't eat in a restaurant with my choice of friends. This wasn't supposed to happen in America. It had never happened to me before. But it was happening now - and to me! Like a robot I left the restaurant with the others at Arnie's signal. Something had changed. I now understood on some deeper level that this civil rights business was not a fight for other people's rights, it was for my civil rights.

The others howled with laughter as we drove away from the White Sail Inn. Maybe I smiled but I was in a fog. Things were shifting in my head and would take a while to settle down into a new pattern of thinking. The rest of that trip to Baltimore was a flurry of pulling into the driveways of roadside diners; being spotted by the wait staffs who would run to the door and lock it before we could enter. We would then wait for the Highway Patrol to pull up and read us that same law again. The third time two things happened. The owner of this particular diner met Arnie at the door with us peering over Arnie's shoulders. He was wearing an undershirt, pants and a dirty apron tied around his waist. He had a beer belly and a very red face which got redder as he looked at our group. He yelled that he was closed. When Arnie pointed out that it was 12 noon and that customers were clearly visible eating in there, his face turned close to purple. We had a hard time not laughing. Arnie said very calmly that all we wanted was to eat lunch too. The owner told him to go around the back for take-out food, which was the only way Black people could eat at most white restaurants. At that point the Highway patrol showed up. I guess one of the waitresses had called them. This time, however three patrol cars with 4 officers in each car pulled up and all of them got out and rested their hands on their billy clubs. It was time for us to quit. We were allowed to get in our car and pull away. No one laughed that time. We kept checking the rear window to see if we were being followed. There would have been no friendly witnesses if they had decided to "teach us a lesson".

We drove on to the city of Baltimore somewhat subdued and with no more mosquito missions in mind. The rest of the day is a blur for me. I know we picked up the students and drove into the country to attend the Maryland CORE rally. And then we drove the long drive home to New York City. I'm sure interesting things happened but my mind was still working on the White Sail Inn.

Other Demonstrations

We demonstrated a lot, my friends and I, during the ten years I lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. One time I pushed Pat in his stroller to a demonstration next to a construction site in Brooklyn (Downstate Medical Center) where they didn't hire any Black people except as janitors. Lots of Black construction workers couldn't get a construction jobs in New York then. The NAACP, CORE and a federation of Brooklyn ministers sponsored the march. We picketed the site for weeks and weeks, each of us having a schedule of when to show up. Local office workers spent their lunch hour walking with us. We marched in a circle and chanted things like, (Question): "What do we want?" (Answer):"Freedom!" "When do we want it?" Answer: "Now!" We sang songs like Oh Freedom and We are Marching (in the Army of the Lord), My Mind's set on Freedom, We Shall not be Moved, I'm on My Way, and of course We Shall Overcome.

March on Washington ~ Civil Rights Demonstration in Missisippi


Anyway, after about an hour of this chanting and singing, many police cars arrived with screeching brakes. I turned away quietly and walked down the block pushing Pat, away from the demonstration . My husband and I had agreed that I shouldn't get arrested or stay around when things got difficult on demonstrations to insure our baby's safety. I used to feel a little jealous of those who got arrested! The civil rights workers who got taken to jail were usually released fairly soon. Then they had to spend a lot of time in courts pleading their cases. They were our heroes. Sometimes the police and the demonstrators got nasty with each other and violence would erupt. The demonstrators had been trained in non-violence so it was almost always the police who lost their tempers and would hit people with clubs for asking for fair and equal treatment.

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