“But, I don’t want to get off the bus…”
Seconds later I found myself standing on the curb with an old black man who also had been kicked off the city bus–neither of us at our intended destination. And we didn’t even get a refund of our fare!
I looked at him for an answer. He barely glanced at me, shook his head, and shuffled away with no explanation.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” I called after him.
He didn’t turn around, just walked on as though he hadn’t heard me.
What had happened? And why?
It was 1959 in Gulfport, Mississippi and I was 17 years old, by myself on a street across from the Gulf of Mexico trying to figure out what I had done to be unceremoniously deposited between where I began and where I wanted to be.
Obviously, I had broken some unknown rule. I had offered my seat to an elderly man because there was no other place available. That simple gesture caused an immediate response, a negative one to my way of thinking.
I was a student at an all white girls school trying to learn the ways of a southern belle, and I had just failed some test. I hadn’t intended to make a social or cultural statement, but, I had ventured across an invisible line that separated blacks and whites: a demarkation that was not to be transversed.
Segregation was alive and well in parts of America. Separate bathrooms for blacks and whites; separate public water fountains, separate schools. separate churches, and separate communities. But for a kid living in rural west Texas where school integration had been a fact of life for several years, segregation wasn’t part of my belief system. I didn’t know the silent taboos that existed, so I didn’t know I was rebelling. I was doing what was acceptable in my part of the world: I was offering someone older than myself the opportunity to rest his weary bones.
This may have been my first act of rebellion. It was not preplanned. It was not thought out. In fact, as I stood on the sidewalk dumbfounded, I felt stupid, embarrassed, confused, and certainly not victorious. These unwritten rules confounded me, and eventually made me angry. Why the hell was I kicked off a bus for attempting to be nice? Who cares where someone sits? Apparently, lots of folks did.
As I made my way back to the dorm that afternoon, I still had not grasped the depth and significance of the great gulf between the races. Nor did I foresee the impact that one-act would have on my life. How was I to know that 58 years later people would continue to harbor fear, suspicion, anger and distrust because of the coloring of one’s skin?
Wow…and it all started over a seat on a bus.
(In an earlier post (https://margosviews.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/you-cant-tell-i-went-to-a-girls-school/) I wrote about the written ‘rules’ that guided students at a southern girls school I attended in 1959-60. But, the unwritten rules were the ones that would shape my belief systems for the next 58 years.)