During my early years in Petersburg Virginia I was a silent observer of the details of my life. There were stores that my parents did not shop in where, because of our race, we could not try on the clothes that we wanted to purchase. There were the hand-me-down textbooks that my school received from the white schools when they ordered new updated textbooks for their students. There were the stores that had lunch counters where we were not allowed to eat. There were water fountains that we could not drink from because they were for white people only.
Our race defined our world-where we could live, where we could work, what our salaries were, where we went to school, where we sat if we went to a white doctor's office, what day we could go to the fair, where we sat in the movie theatre, what interest rate my parents paid if they borrowed money from the bank, where we could shop, where we could swim, where we could worship.
Then, there were the annual trips my family took to Alabama, my father's home and to Texas, my mother's home. We knew that the majority of the neighborhood grocery stores along our route would present us with some type of racial situation like having to enter through the back door, so to avoid a confrontation we always carried our own food and beverages with us on these trips. Bathroom stops were another story, however. Most of the public bathrooms were in gas stations. There were usually 3 of them. The two clean bathrooms were designated "white women" and "white men". The third bathroom, always filthy for lack of daily cleaning, was designated "colored men and women". The white bathrooms were often locked. We usually avoided bathroom confrontations by pulling the car off the highway and going on the side of the road.
When a stop could not be avoided, however, we prayed that the white bathrooms would not be locked and sometimes they were not. In those instances, we just went in and hurriedly used them. When they were locked, however, my parents would bravely ask the gas station attendant for the keys to the bathrooms. This request was usually denied so we would drive on to other stations. Once aa a gas station attendant in Alabama began to pump gas into our car, my Mother asked for the keys to the bathrooms. When this request was denied she angrily told the attendant not to put another drop of gas into the car and we drove off without paying.
Having heard many stories about the lynching of black people in the south, we were sure that these stories would now be told about us and we spent much of the remainder of that trip looking out the rear window for men wearing hoods or others who might want to harm us.
It was against this backdrop that I became a fighter for civil rights in 1959 at the age of 13. I lived in Petersburg, Virginia, a city that was like many others across the United States, segregated.
Encouraged by the social activism of my mother and that of my pastor, both of whom were members of the Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA), I was one of its youngest participants. The PIA was an organization whose mission was the elimination of segregation. My involvement included walking picket lines carrying signs that asked others not to shop in the segregated store that we were picketing in front of, sitting-in at whites only lunch counters where we could not be served, and participating in other forms of protests.
During my years in the movement my experiences also included receiving threats of physical violence, participation in the March on Washington in 1963, and in the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. I met many people involved in the movement including Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Septima Clark, Fred Suttlesworth, C.T. Vivian, Ralph Abernathy and I had the additional good fortune of speaking on the same program with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who was the disciple of peace.
After the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, two men who worked toward achieving an integrated society, I felt disheartened but I was still hopeful that America would one day accept me and give me all of the rights and privileges enjoyed by white America.
Following the murder of Dr. King in 1968 I attended his funeral march in Atlanta. Upon my return to my college campus I noticed that the mindset of those of us young civil rights fighters began to change. Along with the loss of Dr. King, we were faced with the large-scale drafting of black men into the military and their deployment to Viet Nam. Many of these promising young men, some high school graduates and some college graduates, returned to America severely injured or in body bags, images that we witnessed on television news on a daily basis.
During this time many of us also began to feel like we had been sold a bill of goods by white America. They had convinced us that our "lack of being qualified" was the reason we had systematically been kept out of certain employment arenas over the years. So, we went to college in order to "qualify" ourselves, however, now, with diplomas in hand, we were being denied employment with the explanation that we were "overqualified." The rules changed but no one bothered to tell us.
After years of appealing to the conscientious of America but still suffering from racism, we began to question our dedication to the use of nonviolent methods to achieve equality and we began to listen to the rhetoric of the Black Panther Party which advocated an armed revolutionary agenda as a means to achieve equality.
My quest for civil rights has taken me from nonviolent picket line walker, to believer in the ideology of the Black Panther Party, to board membership on some of the most prestigious nonprofit organizations in Charleston, SC, and there is nothing that I would trade for my journey.
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the story above belongs to Priscilla McLeod Robinson.