by Randall Auxier
To tell the truth, I don’t remember the bus number. I thought I would never forget it. But I chose 109 because Kate Campbell’s song by that name pretty well sums it up. It was a strange time to be a kid. (I speak from experience.) In the South, we tended to act –and to think– like our parents. I don’t know what they did in California or New Hampshire, but in Tennessee we learned to say “sir” and “ma’am” in addressing all (white) adults. Some of us were taught to say that to black adults as well. Some of us used the “n” word; some of us were told never, ever to say it. By accident of birth, I was in the latter group. Many of my white friends were in the former group.
None of us understood what was really happening. We had only just arrived in the world, and here we were having to make decisions about the habits and values of many generations. Under slightly altered circumstances, I could easily have been holding one of those signs. They are smiling. I don’t believe this is hatred, or even smirking, because I knew the same kids in my own school. I know they have no idea what they are doing and that they are following their parents’ lead. They are doing this for the same reason they do their chores, and homework and practice their piano lessons and give their best on the baseball field. It’s just how we were raised in that time and place. Don’t disappoint your parents.
I admit I didn’t like these kids and I didn’t like their parents. And I didn’t know why. It wasn’t their political views. I had no understanding of that and neither did they. It wasn’t just because I knew them to be racially “prejudiced,” as we used to call it. I didn’t actually care very much about that –and it didn’t come up very often. That is what changed in 1972, when “forced school desegregation” and “court ordered busing” arrived in Memphis. These were the phrases everyone repeated. Like many cities, Memphis dragged its heels about desegregating the schools, finding any and every excuse to delay or avoid the implementation of the Brown decision.
In 1972 it finally became impossible for city officials to delay things longer. So a plan was implemented for January of 1973. The bus would come before dawn and deliver us to our new schools. “Fruit basket turnover” was what it seemed like, and it was kind of scary. So my parents talked to me and my sister (11 and 12 years old). We could afford a private school, but if we went there, we might not get cars when we were 16. We could stay in the public school and probably have cars. I tell this story because I later came to understand how remarkable it is. Our parents lured us into a desegregation experiment with the promise of cars. I doubt they saw it that way, but even to give children of our age a choice about something like this was in itself pretty amazing. As I said, I never liked those kids who would be in the private schools anyway, or maybe it would be closer to the truth to say they never liked me, but I very much liked the sound of having a car, even at 11. My sister had other motives, I think, but for me it was about getting a car. Until then, Bus 109 would be the plan.
My folks made good on the promise. We got cars (although we had to help pay for them, which they hadn’t mentioned . . .). But by the time all that happened, well, everything had changed forever in our hometown. Racial strife didn’t cease, but our world had very much changed. By 1977, when I got my car, it was becoming clear what would happen. One by one, white kids had trickled back into the school I attended –mostly kids whose parents couldn’t afford to keep them out indefinitely, along with a few like me who wanted to go to the public school (for our own four-wheeled reasons, or some other, like access to better sports teams). I wonder whether the kids in this picture did eventually go to school with “negroes.” I’ll bet they did. I wonder what they think today. A lot of the white kids I knew haven’t changed all that much. But the world surely has.
Here was the basic idea, as far as I can gather: We throw all the kids together, they fight it out while they’re still young and flexible, and then they decide for themselves what sort of world they want to build. This is integrationism –or “intergrationism” as the one sign says . . . . It is designed to counter the unjust effects of segregation. Malcolm X criticized this view as vigorously as he ever criticized anything. He didn’t think it likely that fruit basket turnover would to improve the white race, and he believed it was almost certain to have a deleterious effect on African American culture. Making black people more like white people was not an improvement, he thought –at least not a moral improvement, and that is what he cared about.
Having more money, more power, more opportunity for access to culture, and so on, does not necessarily improve people morally and spiritually. In fact, some of the most morally developed people in human history gave no serious standing to money or power or fame. Justice does not accompany the path of those who have power unless those who have power care to become just. Malcolm X saw an African American community that had been purified and made spiritually independent by centuries of having nothing to rely on except themselves and their faith. They had no power, no money, not even the right to marry or raise their own children.
Yet, even though they were taught to see themselves as deserving all that was being done to them, many, many slaves did not allow their deepest sources of dignity to be taken away. Many, many saw the situation for what it really was and knew who was causing it, who was benefiting, and such slaves did not envy the powerful. Rather, such future leaders of the African American community learned to see how pathetic their white masters really were. Why, Malcolm repeatedly asks, would any black man want to be part of that? In light of the way most white folks (and their kids) seemed to feel about integration, that’s a good question.
Malcolm X also didn’t care for this sentiment. I will take that up next.