Monday, August 9, 2010

AUTHERINE LUCY AND GRAM



Autherine Juanita Lucy was the first black student to attend the University of Alabama in 1956. This was not accomplished without a whimper. Her attempt to integrate the University of Alabama after segregation had been struck down by law, was met with violence and hatred.


What she did took tremendous courage but oddly her name does not appear as well known in the annals of the civil rights movements as some others. Not so with me. I knew of her and that knowledge cost someone dear to me a lot of pain. That has burned her name in my memory forever.

I previously mentioned how my family were benign racists--- if there is such a thing. I would have been grounded for life if I ever used the “N” word and intentional cruelty towards anyone was just not allowed. However, my family came from an ancestry of slave holders and while blacks were to be well treated, they were not considered to be on the same level with us. They were considered chattel—personal property.

According to my family, we didn't mingle, we didn't socialize, we were very separate. I also mentioned that I was the square peg in the round hole of my family. I have no idea how I formed my opinions independently, I just knew my views were very different from my family's and were formed preschool.

Mother had read Uncle Tom's Cabin to my brother and I when I was about 5. Perhaps that started it. I loved my family, I just couldn't agree with them on this one subject. I have always had an overdeveloped sense of fair play and racism is just not fair play. I always saw blacks as being just like me, only with a better tan.

When my mother died, my father married into a family with similar views. Again, I was out numbered. Now this was not something discussed or argued, but it was always just beneath the surface. In those days of segregation in the South, there was little cause for the subject to be brought up.

When Autherine Lucy made her assault on the University of Alabama, I was a junior in high school in Sarasota Florida. It was big news in the deep south. At that time, my step-grandmother was also staying with us. We were a rather new family unit.


My two favorite Grannies. Gram on the left, Mama Fannie on the right. My maternal grandmother died when I was very young.
One day after school, Gram was talking about Autherine Lucy who was in the news. The general opinion between my sisters and Gram was that Lucy was a trouble maker and should stay in her “place”. That stirred me up and I climbed on my soap box saying she had every right to go to the university, it was the new law of the land, and I gave her a standing ovation in recognition of her courage.

Gram who was a pacifist first, started to playfully tease me to ease tensions. She started to shake her finger at me and playfully chanted, “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” while chasing me around the house. Gram's strategy worked for while I ran from her, I started to giggle at the silliness of the situation. I couldn't stay mad at this dear woman.

The chase ended when I fell backwards onto a daybed and she leaned on my raised knees, shaking her finger, laughing and chanting. She had leaned over to waggle her finger in my face and was resting completely on my knees.
Instinctively, I pushed as I tried to get up.
She just said, “Oh”, sucked in air and stopped the teasing instantly. Game over. I thought it was abrupt but was a bit relieved it was over. Her teasing had broken up the tension and we went about the rest of the evening in peace. Gram was quiet through out supper, ate little and retired early.

All was forgotten till late that night when I heard a car door slam and voices. I had not heard anyone leave that night as I am a sound sleeper, but I did hear the return. It was my parents coming back from the emergency room with a stiffly moving Gram.

It seems with that knee thrust, I had broken several of her ribs. It hadn't been that violent a push. Her ribs had been broken quite a few times years ago on her farm and were quite fragile.

We were a new family and the boat was a little unsteady as we each tried to find a place in the new arrangement. We eventually grew into a tight knit group but those early months were a often shaky. Gram had not wanted to cause problems in the family so she had said nothing and had gone quietly to bed with the broken ribs. It was only when my step mom heard her moaning in the night that it was discovered.

I was horrified and sick at what I had done. Intentions are no excuse when such pain is caused. I felt like a stupid brute. I went into her bedroom to apologize in tears. She just took my hand and said she knew I didn't mean it.

I cried ”Why didn't you say something?”

She then just said the most amazing thing. “Honey, I didn't want you to get into any trouble and I thought I could make it. I'm sorry.”

She was actually apologizing to me for not being able to just go forward with broken ribs as if nothing happened. Of course, that made me feel even more horrible about myself, but Gram rose to the top of my book that day.
In movies you hear people saying they will take a bullet for someone. Not counting my birth, at that time, I never actually had someone willingly suffer great pain for me. I was in awe of this small but amazing woman and at that moment, she was family in every sense of the word.

As for Autherine Lucy, besides the abuse and hatred leveled at her and those whites that tried to help her, attacks were also made on the campus presidents home and to quell the swelling violence, Miss Lucy was expelled.



University of Alabama students burning desegregation literature on the University steps.
Sadly, she was not given what I felt was the proper recognition in the Civil Rights movement but because of her and those like her, it did move forward. The next year, the Little Rock Nine captured our hearts, minds and media, eclipsing earlier efforts.

While history may not have given her the proper recognition, Autherine Lucy and her courage is seared into my memory and is linked forever to Gram and myself.

Both of those ladies were my heroes--- for vastly different reasons.

29 comments :

  1. My parents moved from Viginia to Ohio in 1946. They too had southern roots and families with slightly closed minds. As a young girl, I felt as you did and don't know what formed my opinions either, maybe that's because it's the natural and right way to feel and think...a mind unadulterated by others.

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  2. I think your description of your family probably matches mine closely. In Texas however in the '50s there was a saying 'separate but equal." Somehow it did not look equal to me.

    My Dad helped the black community build their schools, with credit at hism buildings supply company. He always said they paid better than most white people and "church" people.

    I developed my own spirit by attending the University of Texas which had a great cross section of humanity. I learned the Lebanese, the blacks, the Hispanics often far exceeded me in academics. Respect and acceptance were easy as were friendships. I'll never forget my first breakfast of scrambled brains and eggs. I learned new cuisines. Please note I did not say I liked them all.

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  3. When I lived in Indonesia my parents taught me to be polite to our servants. Still I felt that there was a great gap between the indigenous people and us, whites. White people always spoke about the Indonesians with mild disdain. I didn't like it.
    I was four years old when I fetched a chair for the servant who was squatting near my mum's chair while listening to what my mother told her to do. The servant refused to sit on the chair and my mum said, that she didn't want to sit there for that was not their adat(habit). I couldn't understand this at the time.

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  4. Funny how some of us simply didn't buy into "that" mentality. I always asked "why" and commented "you're kidding". I never understood, even as a very young child, how anyone could condone racism of any kind. I formed my own opinions at a very early age.

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  5. Hi Patti, Unfortunately, even though I thought we had made some great strides in solving our racism problems, I don't think we have. There are still many people out there who want to put 'blacks' in their place. And now we have the problem with Hispanics. We are a diverse country--but there are obviously still lots of problems.

    I never ever experienced racism. We had a nice black family who lived across the street --and my parents were good friends with them... NICE people.

    But--I experienced it when I lived in Louisiana when a black friend and I were doing a church program in another town. We were supposed to stay in the home of a family there --but when they found out that Delores was black, they wouldn't let us stay there. I was APPALLED.

    These days, I think it's sad that people (like us) who don't follow Obama's policies are called RACISTS... And --it has NOTHING to do at all with the color of his skin... Oh Well--Racism is still out there... Sad, huh?

    Hugs,
    Betsy

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  6. I remember Autherine Lucy very well...Maybe because I am just that much older than you---that whole period was such an important part of the Histpry of The Civil Rights Movement, along with many other happenings and incidents....I don't know what happened to her, but am going to Google her to see....!
    My family were pretty much color-blind and I was brought up in a very liberal family where equality for all was foremost, and I am very grateful for that.

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  7. I had not though much about segregation when I was growing up in Little Rock. It was just our way of life at the time, so I was shocked at the violent reaction to integration when I was a senior at Central High the year we integrated. My parents were not racists, so I was prepared to just accept the new laws. The sight of troops around my high school helped shake me out of my "dream world". I realized that not everyone agreed with integration, and they were prepared to be violent, which I found disgusting.

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  8. Oh honey what a story! You always give me such a gift when I come by here to visit with you.
    I love the way you write and tell your stories.
    So sorry that happened to you and your gram I know it crushed you because thats the kind heart you have.
    Thanks for sharing this and reminding us of all the struggles that went on back in those days. How well I remember them too
    I am having a U Matter giveaway and since U matter you need to enter
    Love
    Maggie

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  9. This is a wonderful post, about the culture of the day, and bits about your family life. Thanks for bringing us info about Autherine Lucy, someone I never heard of.

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  10. Wanda,
    You are right and I agree we must "learn" to hate. It is not our natural instinct. I am a bit amazed at the people who have also said they bucked the trend in their families.A pleasant surprise.

    Nitwit,
    I remember "separate but equal" and those were mearly words. Their schools were no where near equal.
    You were lucky to experience so many different cultures though you lost me at scrambled brains.

    Reader Wil,
    I guess prejudice is world wide and not locked into any particluar culture. Amazing that at 4 you saw no difference, only someone who needed to be made comfortable. As Wanda said, the very young just do what is "right".

    turquoismoon,
    It is becoming clear from the comments that children see what is right instinctively. They have to be taught to think otherwise and some of us just refused to be taught.Proud of you.

    Betsy,
    I am so glad you had such great experiences. Too bad more people haven't.
    It is sad that all conservatives are being branded with the racist label due to a few idiots who seem to be front and center. To assume that is true is also narrow minded.Thanks for the reminder.
    We do have a way to go don't we?

    OOLOH,
    You were fortunate to have such a family. Life is so simple when we don't hate.
    As far as I know, she eventually in the 90's graduated from U of A and is now in her 80's.
    Hope someone does a book on her.

    Betty,
    Oh my, you were there in person. What stories you must have. If you have posted about it, I'd love the link, if you haven't, you should. An eyewitness to history.

    Grandmayellowhair,
    Thanks so much lady. Those were really violent times. We are better but still have a way to go.
    Will have to check out Umatter.

    lakeviewer,
    Thanks so much. She didn't get the press that the Little Rock Nine did but she was a big part of the movement. Being the first is probably the scariest.

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  11. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it. I could identify with parts of it.

    Although a lot of my family members don't mix with people of other races I was fortunate enough to grow up and be around and go to school with Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and some other races of wonderful people with no problems. I have always everyone as people no better or worse than myself and have never had a problem with racism.

    When my husband and I adopted a black baby many of our family members softened on their feelings of 'separate but equal' idea. Through that beautiful little girl they learned that the color did not keep her from being a precious baby and they loved her just as my husband and our children did. Our foster parenting really helped our family with the racism issue.

    Thank you, again for this beautiful post. Hugs

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  12. Wow, what a moving story and so even handed to point out the goodness of Gram. I was lucky to be raised in a very liberal family in Georgia, of all places. To this day, I remain steadfast in my feelings about all humans, although I'm pretty closed minded about stupid people.

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  13. I believe my home (with GA and NC roots) was much like yours. I think that even at this point, in my family, I am the most "broad" thinker on this subject. I remember my dad, a very kind person, thought that the black man who was a vendor and came to our door, should wait outside while Mother went to get her purse for payment. Yet Daddy talked about what a nice man and hard worker the gentleman was. Separate...sure. Equal...well, not in his eyes. I always thought about this when he graciously opened the door and offered something to eat or drink to every single other person who came to our home. Even as a young child I felt uncomfortable with this. Strange, isn't it, the things we remember about how our opinions were formed!

    This was a great post...thanks!

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  14. I had never heard of her before, which is just shameful! Thanks for filling me in.

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  15. What a poignant story and thank goodness for Gram. Lucky you knew she too the bullet for you, sometimes we never get to know.

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  16. Mumsy,
    Thanks and it is wonderful that your family has softened through interactiion with your new daughter.
    Often close exposure to another race is all that is needed to realize we are all alike, we just have different packaging.

    marciamayo,
    Thank you. I am so pleased to discover that several of my deep south readers were raised with open minds.

    Deb,
    Thanks so much.I am so pleased to see I am not alone in being able to branch off from a parents views. Makes you wonder why some do and some don't.

    Kenju,
    You are welcome. Some of the US history is not to be proud of but people like Ms. Lucy stand out as amazing examples.

    Linda Starr,
    You know you are right. I am sure many times our family or spouses take a bullet for us but it is never known. I am so glad I learned that about Gram.

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  17. What an amazing story, Patti. I love how Autherine Lucy and your Gram are entwined in your memory like that. I have never heard of Autherine Lucy before this, but I will remember her always.

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  18. Oh my, this story does bring back memories. Looking back now it's hard to believe supposedly civil Christian people could cause so much pain to other humans for such a long time. I will never understand people.

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  19. robin,
    Thanks robin, they will always be linked for me. It is impossible to think about Autherine with out thinking of Gram. And Gram's greatest gift to me involved Ms. Lucy.

    Linda,
    It is true. We are much better as a species today than we were then but good Lord do we have a ways to go yet. Lets hope we keep moving forward.

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  20. i was too young to even remember any of that.. who at 10 years old listens to the news?? i have trouble remembering yesterday!!

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  21. A fascinating account of a historical event.

    I think I am going to have to scroll back through your blog and find out more about you.
    Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting.

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  22. both of those ladies had exceptional courage and spirit

    this story is breathtaking Patti
    it covers so much of our history as a nation while being deeply personal

    I just love you

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  23. Anonymous,
    Don't feel badly Jan, I can remember 50 years ago, just don't ask me about breakfast.

    Friko,
    Thanks so much for stopping by. I really enjoy your blog. I've been reading it for a short while.

    Dianne,
    Thanks so much lady and back at ya.
    Those were times that were hard to live through, even on the fringe. Can't imagine what it was like to be in the midst.

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  24. What an amazing post ... yes Gram was an amazing lady too

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  25. Angie,
    Thank you so much. I think so too.

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  26. I'm not quite certain how I missed this post, but I did, and I am sorry. What a wonderful post. It's amazing how those things stick with us. Thanks for the history lesson.

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  27. Barry,
    Thanks so much. Those two will always be entwined for me.

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  28. Very moving tale .. Your heroes really speak a lot about you. As usual, I leave inspired & awed :)

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