Can we all get along?

Can we all get along?

For one black mother, the violence in Ferguson brings back memories of a lifetime of racial discomfort

BRATTLEBORO — After watching all of this violence in Ferguson, Mo., I have truly returned to my earlier years, when the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were in full force. Watching the rioting reminded me of all the rioting that went on in the '60s, when I was still a child.

I remember sitting in my mother's living room, in Connecticut, watching the news in disbelief as big German shepherd police dogs tried to chew up as many black folks as possible. And I watched the many people who got sprayed with fire hoses just because they were demanding civil rights.

I was young, but my mom let me watch the news with her so I would be educated about the situation and so I would never forget our struggle.

I was sitting in church with the family on Sept. 15, 1963, when Rev. Lawson got word of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed those four precious little girls, who were the same age as me. Word of the devastation traveled very quickly throughout the national black community that day.

My parents were the gospel music directors of our church. My earliest remembrances were life at home rehearsing around the piano with my dad, and going to church, several times a week.

On two to three weekends a month, I traveled with my folks and their choirs to various churches to sing, whether it was somewhere in town or anywhere up and down the East Coast.

One thing I remember and was puzzled about was why we sometimes had to go to the bathroom outside behind buildings or bushes, with a circle of ladies standing around, holding coats so no one would see.

When I'd ask, my mom would just say, “Oh, they only had bathrooms for the white people.”

And they would always bring plenty of fried chicken and potato salad for us to eat on the bus, because there was always a good chance that there would not be any restaurants for us to eat in, either.

I didn't understand until I was quite grown that we had entered the South and the territory of Jim Crow laws.

* * *

I learned from a young age not to trust white people - especially white people of authority, which back then seemed to be all white people.

During my teen years, when I would be just walking down the street with my boyfriend, police cars would sometimes pull all the way up onto the sidewalk just to block us and profile my boyfriend with a bunch of questions.

One day when I was in high school, the assistant principal went around to all of the classrooms and had all of the black students go down to the cafeteria. Once we were all gathered there, we were informed that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.

Then they dismissed us from school before any of the white kids got out, out of fear of a race riot.

In 1967, that same boyfriend was given a choice: go to jail for a minor offense, or go into the service. So he chose the Marine Corps. Needless to say, they shipped him off to Vietnam shortly after he got to Camp Pendleton.

We communicated quite a bit that first year. But I did not hear from him anymore after the Tet Offensive in 1968. I was sure our daughter and I would never see him again.

So, in November of 1969, I hitchhiked down to Washington, D.C. for the second Vietnam War Moratorium. I was one of those protesters who got hit with tear gas in front of the Justice Department.

My man came home in 1970, but he was a scary someone else.

* * *

Every time I hear about riots and tear gas, I think about those experiences. I swear, it seems like the civil rights movement in some cases is going backward. As Rodney King asked after the Los Angeles riots, “Can we all get along?”

I also give thanks that I am living in Vermont, because I have peace here and lots of good friends who just happen to be white, friends whom I trust.

I must give props to the Brattleboro Police Department, because I got it firsthand from my son that they are upstanding and fair.

And that is saying a lot, because like most black mothers, we have to raise our sons to be wary of white police - even when our boys are not doing anything wrong.

But when will the day come when we will not have to do this?

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