My name is Claire Patrese Sams (Milligan). I am one of you veterans because I, too, have a life-long passion for social justice and the rights of oppressed and poor and underrepresented and marginalized people all over this world. Especially for people whom I've mentioned who look like me.
In some other ways, though, I am not like most of you. I don't have SNCC buttons or memories of Freedom Schools or Highlander. I was born in Montgomery, AL. I grew up around and in our people's struggles. And my son and I are still in that "struggle."
Big Mama's church (Hall St. Baptist Church) was one of the sister churches to Dexter Ave., Rev. King's church. He was Rev. King to me; not Dr. King. Our Pastor, Rev. Felix James, was Chaplain at Alabama State College (University). That's where Sister Jo Ann Robinson and the other women had been planning a bus boycott, complete w/letters to city officials, years before Sister Claudette and Sister Mary Louise and then sister Rosa wouldn't get up.
I remember riding with my Big Daddy, in his car, on his regular route to take the boycotting women to work. (Later on, Big Mama's church bought a station wagon for the boycott.) I was to have been Big Daddy's first stop — dropping me off at nursery school. But he'd give in to my pleas and let me ride with them. (It amazes me that thirty-five years later my husband and I bought a house in that formerly "white" neighborhood. The house was at one of those bus stops.)
Anyhow, a few years after '55 I remember being at Dexter w/my best friend a lot. Her Granddaddy was as officer at the church. She and I used to play w/Yogi (Yolanda King) in that church's basement.
Fast forward once more to 1965. Many of the women in my family were elementary school teachers. They knew not to participate in the civil rights marches, for fear of losing their jobs. So I'd look out of the window of the school and watch the protestors go by. But, by that March, 1965, my elders also KNEW that if I didn't have their blessing to meet the Selma to Montgomery marchers at St. Jude, well I was going to go. So, that same Big Daddy who drove 4-yr old me during the boycott, drove 13 yr-old me over the field at St. Jude. Somebody even fixed me a brown paper bag lunch.
I remember all of us walking down Oak Street, and winding around in the Black neighborhood — on streets that have since been chopped up for the interstates I-85 and I-65. Then, for a relatively long distance for a 13-yr old girl, but for a short time in eternity, we got to the foot of Dexter Avenue. And I could tiptoe and see ALL those people ahead of us — all the way up to the capitol steps. Black and white.
That was my first memory of being near a white person in a non-subservient, non-adversarial manner. I had been bold and spat in their water fountains — the pristine, polished porcelain surfaces with cold water. Right next to our "colored only" turn-on-the-faucet-from-underneath-the-rusted-sink-hot-water-fountains. I'd eaten downstairs every first of the month-that's when the teachers' got paid — at the colored luncheonette in H L. Green's $.05 & $.10 store.
But that day in March, 1965, as we marched up Dexter Ave., I was holding hands w/what I remember to have been a white clergyman (I remember his collar), singing "We Shall Overcome." I felt strange. Blessed, I call it, now; not strange. But who knew, at twelve? How could I know back then that what I was experiencing was perhaps a type of the Beloved Community towards which I continue to press.
A lot happened between 1965 and 1969. Looking at hypocrisy in the organized church — Big Mama's Baptist church, I transitioned from a member of Mrs. Johnnie Carr's Sunbeam Band, to being an agnostic on whom God played another of many MANY jokes in my life. After graduating from high school and in 1969 heading to college at Fisk (instead of Mt. Holyoke), my work study job was in the Chaplain's office. God sent me to work with w/The Rev. Hycel Taylor! Me, the agnostic!
I got to Fisk shortly after Sisters Nikki and Sonya and the major riots on the campus. It was through the Chaplain that I was introduced to Albert Cleage's concept of Black theology and Black power. Through Fisk I also met Jim Bevel (its own nightmare). Through Fisk came Marxism and then a Marxist study cell in Wash, D.C. And to struggles for prisoner rights in Nashville. And then to Atlanta and Jim Forman, Worth Long, and Rick Reed and Damu and the Black Worker's Congress (BWC) and spinning cotton in a cotton gin and driving a forklift in a manufacturing plant. By then, no longer the agnostic but a card-carrying Maoist/Marxist-Leninist.
And on and on, to today. Still passionate about social justice/reconciliation/redemption, now especially journeying with people diagnosed with depression and bipolar (mental illnesses). Even more passionate about just-plain-us, human beings all over this world — especially in southern Africa — and justice in our socially and economically healthy lives. Walking and working with my God's Grace (no longer the atheist), holding hands with my son and his friends on our journey towards that Beloved Community