Roberta Tate
Selma student activist, 1963-1965

Exerpted from the forthcoming book The Tip of the Arrow, by Charles Bonner.

"I was only six or seven when I first recognized that Negroes were not treated fairly and that there was injustice towards black folks. I absolutely recognized that when I was at Park Elementary School. When I had to get water in those fountains I resented the fact that they had the audacity to have the fountains designated for whites only or blacks. My sister worked at one of the department stores, I think it was Mingo's, and even though she worked there, when we went to look at clothes, we could not try them on. We had to buy the clothes, take them home and just hope that they fit. When we went to the Wilber Theater, we had to crawl into the balcony. All of these things bothered me

At the time of the civil rights movement, Cleophus Hobbs and I were involved as boyfriend and girlfriend. I remember how much I wanted to be involved in the marches, but my mother let all of my sisters participate in the marches, but not me. And that was because I had a real hate, I mean with a capital H for those people. It took me all the way through having my second child until I worked some of that hatred out. I had no fear because of my hatred. I wanted her to let me march, but I told her that I might not be able to be nonviolent regardless of what took place, and so she only let me do things like type letters for the movement and stuff envelopes or whatever logistical help I could give.

I remember going to many of the mass meetings at Brown Chapel and at my church, First Baptist, and I remember my pastor being somewhat reluctant initially to allow the mass meetings at Baptist. I think it was after he saw that meetings were held at Brown Chapel and Tabernacle that he changed his mind.

Those two took the lead in opening up their facilities for the mass meetings. I remember going to the mass meetings, which meant I had to walk back home from those meetings to the projects. During these walks home I remember being very actively engaged with Cleophus in terms of discussion about the movement. Of course I also remember the day we decided as a class to just disregard the warnings not to meet from the superintendent, Mr. Pickett. Mr. Pickett threatened us about leaving the campus to march and warned us that we wouldn't be allowed to graduate if we left to march. I don't remember the date of that, but I definitely remember walking out of school and Mr. Yelder, our principal, trying to stop us. I also remember how beautiful it was to really get the courage to speak, to be strong enough to actually participate in this movement.

Cleophus' commitment to the movement was extraordinary. He was a young kid, but he truly understood the magnitude of the movement, and he had the foresight and insight to lead that movement in terms of those of us at R.B. Hudson High School, and probably of most of the young people.

Our class had the leaders who really participated in the actual movement. We inspired the people to be willing to take a stand. I don't know if they otherwise would have. Maybe eventually, but the fact that they saw us stand up, that was what caused them to gain strength and even allowed Mr. Yelder at some point to find his own voice.

I heard Dr. King speak at the mass meetings several times. He was a powerful speaker and I could appreciate his vision. He was a young man, but seemed to have been destined to lead that movement. He was somebody people were willing to follow because you could hear his passion and his commitment in the speeches he gave. I remember sitting in those meetings and getting overwhelmed and crying, because for such a long time I had wanted somebody to tell us to stand up. There was a day when I saw the Ku Klux Klan on one of their rallies, and they were in a long caravan of cars. It seemed like all of the cars were white, and they all got out of the cars, stood in their white robes, and we were outside playing in our yard, and I remember how when they came, all of us, I mean everybody, ran to their respective homes.

Everybody ran because we were terrified. Even though I was terrified in that instance I was still mad as hell that we ran because, even though I was small, my thinking was that if we had just stood our ground, maybe right then and there that stance would have motivated us to do more. I think I was in elementary school then. I lived in the George Washington Carver Projects.

That was the first moment I felt fear. Before that time I had heard about them but I had never seen them. They came and it wasn't in the night, it was still daylight. It was during the day! They were very bold.

From a very early part of my life and when I knew Ms. Sullivan, who at that time lived right behind us in the projects. She was an elderly woman and I saw her working really hard at about 70 or 80 years old. Mrs. Sullivan was living with her daughter and her grandchildren because she was helping her daughter to raise them. She lived right next door to Leroy Moton, the one who was in the car with Liuzzo when she was killed.

Mrs. Sullivan worked as a maid. I saw her early in the morning, being picked up by the woman or the husband that she worked for and I saw her bringing clothes home, and the next morning I saw her getting into that car again with all of those doggone shirts ironed and pressed and on hangers. She was loaded down, and then she got in the back of the car. I really hated that she had to do that.

People in our culture understand that I would never work in anybody's kitchen but my own. I would never wash anybody's clothes but my own and those of my own family. I remember that my daddy worked three jobs most of my life to take care of us, and one of his jobs was working at the Almanac. They made a publication for the farmers. He was the janitor there, and if some white people called him, he did cleaning jobs and went to the white women's homes on the weekend and cleaned their floors. I resented him having to do that but sometimes I went with him so that I could help him so that he could finish faster. I remember having to wax those floors because he did it. All on my knees, and I cried, but I did not let him see me cry. I just wanted to help him because I resented the fact that he had to do that kind of work, and I waxed and cried and just got the job done.

By that time I was probably in my teens, about thirteen or fourteen. My dad's name was Robert Tate, and my mother's name was Ira. She was a beautician. She did hair at our house, and she worked also in my great grandmother's shop.

We were never poor. I don't know how Robert Tate did it — well, I do know, but we were absolutely middle class. My father always did the grocery shopping, even when he and my mother divorced when I finished high school and went to A&M the first year. Even when my parents separated and divorced, he still brought groceries to the house every week. There were six of us, and during Christmas we had so many toys that we could barely get from upstairs to downstairs in the living room. We had bicycles, and skates and clothes, and everybody had their own corner. We had loads and loads of stuff.

All of us growing up in Selma could see the injustice of our lives. Even as a child I could see that. I was actually reading books to ensure that I did not lose the sense of how urgent the moment was. So I read these books to keep myself hungry. I knew that eventually something had to change, and I also knew for certain that I was going to get out of Selma. I was going to leave Selma, I was going to go to college, I didn't know how, but I was going to do it.

I remember the debutante's ball in 1963, just as we began our involvement in the movement. I especially remember all of the rehearsals we had to attend, but not many of the details, just that Cleophus was my escort. We all had a great time. Cleophus and Charles Bonner were very, very heavily involved in every aspect of the movement, and they were clearly the leaders and were recognized by people as the leaders. I would say they were our own Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttleworth, the junior versions.

I think the young kids today have learned some of the same techniques and skill sets that were used during the civil rights movement. They seem to have the same level of commitment, and I am encouraged by that, and they have a lot more help. They can use that help we didn't have to generate mass gatherings. I think they have to realize that what they do has to be nonviolent. I appreciated that part even during the sixties, but I had so much resentment toward the white man that I was a danger even to my own health.

I am thankful that my mother recognized that, and I remember very distinctly my great-grandmother Momma Willy telling me that "If you don't stop hating the white man as much as you do you're going to die and go straight to hell." Which scared me, because of course I couldn't do anything but accept it because I dared not say anything back. But in my mind I questioned how she could say that to somebody as young as I was at that time, and who was, in my mind, completely justified in feeling the way I felt.

I felt that I was justified in hating white people because they were wrong to try to get me to think that I was less than them use of the color of my skin. My mother told me to remember that Booker T. Washington scrubbed floors, and I responded, "That's fine but I'm not Booker T. Washington." As I said, I was still working through some of my anger and hatred from having grown up in Selma. The effect of the KKK and the water fountains and the way my father was treated had a major impact on my young mind.

The civil rights movement in Selma had a very significant impact, not just on the United States, but on the entire world. When the people in the world saw the kind of things that were going on in Selma, those countries began to put pressure on the United States, because the United States were trying to present themselves as a good country where people are treated with dignity, and human rights are something that we supposedly cherished. People could see at that time and continued to see how we had been treated.

See also:

Selma — Breaking the Grip of Fear
Freedom Day in Selma
The Selma Injunction
1965: Selma & The March to Montgomery

Copyright © Roberta Tate & Charles Bonner. 2015

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