The below collection of excerpts of interviews with various foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement provides some glimpses into what it was like to grow up in segregation. A couple of the interviewees reveal how children saw the police as enemies. The anxiety created by the Klu Klux Klan through their activities including burning crosses and bombings can be gleaned from a few of the statements. All of the statements reveal the emotional wounds and humiliation of discrimination.
I had always felt that there was something wrong between the races and I wasn’t really sure what that “something” was.… I didn’t like the way the black people in my community would respond when a white bill collector would come around.... They were normally very proud, aggressive men. But, then, all of a sudden they would become rather subservient in their demeanor.
[T]here were several racial incidents from outside of West Field [the neighborhood where I grew up]. I remember the Fielder twins…the police from Fairfield…putting them in the car and taking them out to the city dump [where the police beat them]…until they were unrecognizable. [T]he Klu Klux [Klan] came…on several occasions…. They would burn crosses. I can remember a time when one guy with a hood and a rope attempted to enter in through the bedroom while I was sleeping… I hollered out and my father came with the shotgun and ran him out…. [M]y father was the one that headed up the movement of the NAACP in West Field… He was very instrumental in voter registration and so forth. [T]he Klu Klux [Klan] really wanted to stop him. [Another memory concerns a childhood friend of mine, who was detained as a juvenile for] looking at a white girl…. [He was detained] for approximately ten days; [they] shaved all of his hair off and charged him with reckless eyeballs.
[R]ace was something that was there and we knew that it was there….[I thought] that white people were different, even superior…cause they were the ones that were primarily show in a cleaner light than we [the blacks] were shown. We saw that through television: Leave It to Beaver. They would open the refrigerator and they had a ham, a carton of milk, and a dozen eggs… Well, you open a refrigerator in my neighborhood and you can’t really recognize what’s in there…. [T]hat had an influence on me as to how I felt my life should be, but it wasn’t that way….
[Then] Emmit Till was killed and...I discovered that there was something wicked that existed in the white world.… [T]he mothers would tell [their sons] not to look at a white woman because of what happened and not to travel or go anyplace alone.... I imagine…I was [around] nine years old [when two white men brutally killed Emmit Till in Mississippi for having flirted with one of the men’s wife.] …. [T]he racial point was made with me at that time. I knew exactly how to survive from that day on. One of the mechanisms was not to give the white man an excuse.
John Henry Lee
We didn’t want to see the police. It wasn’t a positive thing to see the police coming. Something was out of hand or they were coming in to suppress something.
Floretta Scruggs Tyson
[After the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church] I was devastated and frightened terribly. It was just a big shock.… I can remember that a house was bombed about two blocks from where I lived….[My father] and other fathers, went outside with guns. I just remember him telling us don’t come outside. I don’t know what they were looking for but everybody was upset, because… [of] what had happened earlier that day with the church being bombed [and the four little girls being killed]….It was very frightening….We didn’t know what to do. It was so many things that were going on….incidents [were] happening… [T]hings that you hear about and my mother would tell us to be careful. You know like, the whites were so angry. If people would stand on the corner to catch the bus…[the whites] might be throwing rocks or anything or just shooting at you…It was just really dangerous.
Danella Jones Bryant
[O]ne incidents…sticks out in my mind very well. I was coming home from school one day with some of my girlfriends and were walking….[T]his pick-up truck passed by…[with] three white guys…[T]hey yelled out….[h]ey you nigger. You niggers go home…..I was really hurt about it….It made me realize [that] things were not right in Birmingham…
I [also] remember every time I got on the bus; if it was crowded in the back and there were seats in the front, I had to stand up…. I felt that was unfair. I remember not understanding why I couldn’t go to the Alabama Theater [which was the nicer theater in town]. I had to go to the Lyric and sit upstairs where there were rats and roaches…..
[The police also stopped me and a friend one time. The officer] asked my friend for his driver’s license and he showed it to him. [The officer] …was saying something nasty to him… [H]e told him to get out of the car and that he was going to arrest him. By this time I had gotten out of the car and I asked him, “Sir, why are you arresting him? What have we done? We didn’t run a red light. We didn’t do anything?” …[H]e pushed me to the ground…..and put a gun to my head…[saying] “I could blow your brains out and no one would even care.”….[H]e looks to his partner and he says, “Oh, this is a nigger bitch.” So he told me to get up and run and don’t look back. He said, “I mean you better not look back.” And that is what I did. I was scared…..I ran.