The Trailways bus rolled into Mississippi from the North. It was dinnertime. I, along with other passengers and my college schoolmate, stopped off at the diner. As we entered I saw a long window separating the diner, split down the middle. On the other side were Negroes (now called African-Americans) eating. I noticed the diner had two of everything else: two restrooms: one for White Men, one for Colored Men; and one for White Women, the other for Colored Women. Two water fountains: one for Whites and one for Colored. This was my first glimpse of the physically segregated South and a taste of what was to come.
Later that day, my schoolmate Karen and I were dropped off in Hattiesburg. We arrived at the front door of our host and sponsor, the Delta Ministry. The Delta Ministry was the National Council of Churches' civil rights project, situated in Hattiesburg; it worked collaboratively and alongside all the other civil rights organizations — including CORE, SNCC, COFO, SCLC, and others.
Before entering the office that was off of Mobile Street, the Director called from inside, "Before you step inside, you will be on the FBI List, are you ready for that?" ... after a pause, well ... I got on the FBI List.
The very next day, my first day on the job, we were to appear at the county Courthouse. A fellow-civil rights worker was arrested because he was walking alone by the highway; police, knowing he was an outsider, an agitator, a Northerner and a troublemaker, put him in jail. It was dangerous if an outsider was jailed for any length of time in a Mississippi jail. So we needed to be at his trial.
There were about ten of us — Whites, Blacks and me. We sat on a long bench closest to the entrance, which happened to be the "White Section" of the Courtroom. When the Deputy Sheriff appeared, he walked up to us. Trials could not start until people were seated in their proper sections. The Deputy approached each one of us not White, and told each to move to the Colored section. Each Negro replied, 'NO, I'm not moving.'
When he came to me, he suddenly froze in his tracks; he scratched his head under his uniform hat; he looked over at the presiding Judge who was patiently waiting at the back of the courtroom. I just sat and looked at him. The Deputy Sheriff finally walked back to where the Judge stood and they began a whispering session for about one-minute. Then the Deputy Sheriff returned to the front of the courtroom and announced "This case is dismissed."
As we filed out the Courtroom, I was stunned. We mingled a bit and talked, then we left with our now-freed Freedom Fighter (that's what we call ourselves) in tow. Now, looking back — I know they hadn't counted on me coming. If I had known that would happen ... if I had known cases could be dismissed because the courts didn't know what to do with someone not Black or White — what is an Asian doing here anyway? They hadn't counted on me being there fighting for the freedom of Blacks ... If I had known better, I could've gone to every trial there was in the South and just sat there ... and dismiss cases.
For that moment anyway, the conscience of the Nation sat in limbo and helped free my fellow-freedom fighter. That is the irony of racism. It's not about color, it's about human dignity and equal rights.
The civil rights movement is about more than Whites versus Blacks, or who sits where; the core of the Movement is about basic human rights and it involves all of us rising up (or sitting down) for one another.
Copyright © Marion Kwan. 2020
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