An Important Day for Me - and Us
As another January slips down the rabbit hole, I am shocked to realize I have a birthday this week. Tuesday to be exact. Groundhog Day.
This seems oddly appropriate because, as in the movie starring Bill Murray, every year the same things more or less seem to happen repetitively. I'm just a little bit older, wider and slower to react.
As usual, for instance, my old college roommate from Charlotte will send me a greeting card featuring a pig or hog and an appalling sexual inference. This guy is true faithful friend, as I like to annually remind him, a "Charlottan" of the first order.
My wife, a talented cake-maker, will once again lower her high baking standards sufficiently long enough to knock out a Betty Crocker devil's food cake with delicious, preservative-laced, canned frosting, exactly the kind of thing my nonbaking mama - a former beauty queen from West Virginia - used to make back in the "Ozzie and Harriet" years.
As Proust said, and I misquote, there's no accounting for bad tastes in birthday cakes - it's all about the bicycle you failed to receive for your fifth birthday, anyway.
With luck, my college kids will phone to congratulate the old man enthusiastically on achieving another year on the vertical - and casually mention how they really hoped to buy me a "very cool present" if only they weren't short of operating funds. You can almost cut the irony with a cake knife.
Once again, dear, sweet Myrtis will have us over for a swell little birthday supper with a few close friends who forgot to make up a good excuse why they couldn't come. I'll spill something on my new shirt. We'll tell some of the same jokes we told last year because, as Mark Twain once observed, when I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.
At my age, this is all a guy really needs or wants for his birthday: a few friends who will feed and poke fun at you, children who will make you feel really needed, depending upon their finances, and a delicious cake any reasonably bright 6-year-old could make with her Easy-Bake oven.
Witness to History
But this year brings a more reflective quality to it. This year marks an important anniversary - a moment that changed both America and me.
Shortly before lunch on Feb. 2, 1960 - my seventh birthday - my dad appeared at the doorway of my second-grade classroom in Greensboro. He collected my older brother from his fourth-grade class and drove us downtown, purportedly to return library books we'd checked out only days before.
Dicky and I both sensed something else was up. As my big brother recently reminded me, we stopped on the way downtown to have hot dogs at the famous Yum Yum ice cream shop by the UNC-Greensboro campus. We parked near the old Greensboro Daily News building on Davie Street and walked around the corner to Greene and Elm.
I remember seeing a pretty good-sized crowd, white men mostly, and policemen milling about. I remember thinking it might be some kind of parade or, better yet, maybe a crime scene.
My brother and I were sons of an itinerate newspaperman who'd taken us to see everything from political stump speeches to barn fires, catfish bogs to courthouse trials.
We walked down to the Center Theater, where I often went to the movies, and stood under the marquee. Across the street at the F.W. Woolworth's where I liked to sit at the lunch counter and eat a grilled-cheese sandwich, there was a buzz of activity, people milling about, policemen looking worried. A young black man was holding a sign of some kind - though I don't recall what it said. There were young women who looked like college girls.
"What's going on?" Dicky asked our dad.
"History," he said.
He turned and nodded toward the "colored" entrance of the Center Theater. "I thought you boys ought to see this," he said. "That won't be there too much longer."
Changed the Nation
Shortly before lunch the day before, he explained, a group of four young black men from A&T State University had taken seats at the Woolworth's lunch counter reserved for "whites only" and waited to be served. They sat unserved by the black counter help until closing time at 5:30 that afternoon. News of the silent, nonviolent protest spread like wildfire.
The next day, the polite protesters were back - as were lots of white spectators, a larger police contingent, several more reporters and a supportive group of coeds from Bennett College. The students were all well dressed and beautifully behaved, occupying all the counter seats.
By the next day, photographs of the so-called "Greensboro Four" - Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain - were shown in every newspaper in America. On South Elm, more students from A&T State and nearby Bennett College swelled the ranks, picketing down the street to S.H. Kress.
By then the crowds were very large and taunts were being made. But no violence occurred. A nervous peace prevailed.
Several days later - a Saturday, as I recall - my dad drove me in his Pontiac Star Chief right up Elm Street, where hundreds of black folks sat peacefully on the sidewalk, many singing a hymn I would later learn was the anthem of the American civil rights movement.
I grew up and went off to college and returned to my hometown paper before heading off to Atlanta to work for the largest newspaper in the South. It was there I got to know Andy Young and several members of the King family. While I was working on a profile of Young for a national magazine, he tuned to me and asked, "So how did seeing the Greensboro sit-in change you?"
"It changed the South," I said without a moment's hesitation, and then I added with a smile, "On my birthday, no less."
"No it didn't," Young said. "It changed America. That was a birthday gift to us all."
No less than Martin Luther King himself observed that the Greensboro sit-ins - which swept away "whites only" signs and discriminatory practices across the South - amounted to the birth of the modern American civil rights movement.
Understanding Who We Are
The other afternoon, I found Mary Bender, a pleasant white-haired grandmother of 70, waiting for me in my office at PineStraw magazine.
Mary is a veteran social worker and counselor who worked in the Montgomery County schools for more than 15 years. She's also a licensed Methodist minister who recently opened a counseling practice based here in Moore County.
I was so pleased to meet her because we share something special. We both witnessed the Greensboro sit-in. I just happened to be an interested, impressionable observer. Mary was a participant.
She was a daughter of a City College of New York English professor and exchange student from Ohio Wesleyan who'd decided to stay on at all-black Bennett College because she felt a kinship with her fellow students.
She heard about the sit-in on the first day - heard students talking about joining the protest - and asked Bennett's president for permission to do the same.
"We had one other white student on the campus, and she went on day 2 or 3 of the sit-in," Mary said. "I knew I wanted to go, too, to show my support of what they were doing and how they were doing it. I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do."
So Mary went and joined the picketing that suddenly included A&T State and Bennett College students and even a handful of coeds from Woman's College. She was jeered and taunted.
"One man, I remember, tried to put a lighted cigarette in my coat pocket," she said.
As we sat reminiscing in my quiet office 50 years after the fact, I asked if she ever felt afraid during her involvement. At one point Mary was arrested and booked with dozens of other students.
She smiled. "Not really," she said. "I mean, it was surprisingly social, even exciting. I was with a lot of people, many of whom were my friends. We felt what we were doing was important. I remember that a reporter wanted to interview me, and my only real concern was for the college. I didn't want there to be any repercussions for Bennett. So I just told him where I came from."
I asked Mary how that week affected her life.
"Oh, it informed everything I ever did," she replied, telling me about a life in service that took her to Nashville and ultimately back to North Carolina to work with teen mothers, among other things. "It helped me understand who I really was."
As she said this, I realized that the events of my birthday week helped me understand who I was as well.
Late Birthday Present
On Monday, Mary will venture up to Greensboro to participate in some of the opening activities of the International Civil Rights Museum, which is scheduled to open officially tomorrow in the old Woolworth's building on Elm Street. A Who's Who of the American civil rights movement will be there to participate. Mary will be part of a Monday-morning panel discussion at Bennett College to let students there better understand their college's role in the giving birth to the modern American civil rights movement.
In two weeks, she begins teaching a course in the Senior Enrichment Program at Sandhills Community College, appropriately titled "Understanding Yourself and Others."
"You know," she said to me as we walked down the sidewalk after our chat, "I'm pleased to have been part of that event because it ultimately changed the attitudes of so many people here and elsewhere. During the years I worked over in Montgomery County, I knew several people who completely changed their racial attitudes. They came to accept and really care about others who were different."
I thanked her for coming by and wished her a safe journey in the snow up to the 50th anniversary, which wouldn't be taking place without people like her. It was also nice, after so long a time, to meet someone else who was there.
"Will you go?" she wondered.
"Eventually," I said, pointing out that I would wait for a quiet winter afternoon and go up and see the old Woolworth's for myself.
"It will be a late birthday present to myself," I said, wishing my dad could be there.
Jim Dodson, editor of PineStraw magazine and frequent contributor to The Pilot, can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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