by Crystal M. Anderson
Growing up White in the Midwest with a mixture of ethnic groups, I was not used to seeing obvious racial discrimination. But when we moved to Pensacola, Florida in 1959, I got my first taste of how Blacks and Whites were treated differently: separate fountains, separate restrooms and separate lunch counters. I did not fully understand what I saw, even though it was considered normal in the southern states back then.
While living in Pensacola, I drove most places — but one day I decided a bus ride would be fun. My children, three and two years old, were excited. When we boarded the bus, they headed for the very back seat. The ride was fun for me, too; looking at the sights without worrying about driving was a treat.
The bus stopped to let an older Black woman on. The other riders became very quiet and turned to look at us. I was suddenly uncomfortable. Finally the bus driver turned in his seat and said “Ma’am, I can’t let her on the bus unless you move forward. If you don’t, I won’t open the door and let her on the bus.”
Suddenly I understood. Black riders had to sit in back, and wouldn’t be allowed on the bus if White riders were in the seats they were allotted to use. This woman clearly had somewhere to go, and the local “rules” put me ahead of her. I so desperately wanted to speak out at the injustice, to take a stand and remain seated. But the bus driver would have left her standing on the corner. I knew I had to let her on the bus.
My children and I moved forward, the driver opened the door, and the woman stepped on. As she walked down the aisle, I smiled at her and received a smile in return. Tears welled up in my throat at man’s cruelty to man. I had always impressed on my children that you like or dislike a person for what they do, never because of their skin color.
By the time we got off the bus, I was ready to take a small stand. I took my children to the back door. The driver motioned for us to move forward and I shook my head. We stayed at the back door until he opened it. As we stepped off the bus, I waved and smiled at the woman, and she waved and smiled back. That lady impressed me with her dignity, her gentleness and her pride in who she was. She was my kind of people, someone I would have been honored to call a friend.
That day, I learned that when rules are wrong you can still keep your dignity. She stood tall and proud and held her head up high — and without even speaking, taught me to do the same.