I spent time in Jackson, MS a few months ago, there to run the Mississippi Blues half marathon. It was very, very hilly, but nonetheless I had a great race. Since my trip took me there to run, at first it had not occurred to me that to walk — much less run — downtown without incident was a victory.
Then, the Thursday before the race, I ran four miles through downtown Jackson, when I came upon a plaque and my heart stopped. I remembered history. I remembered the battles others fought so that I, a Southern woman of color, could run through the streets. Just think, a mere 50 years ago I may not have been able to run that half marathon. I may not have even been able to walk downtown! I certainly would not have been able to eat dinner at a table in a restaurant. That is a victory.
This is a tribute to those who came before me.
First I came upon the 1961 Woolworth’s sit-in site. On May 28, 1963, a small group of students and faculty drove 10 miles to downtown and sat at the lunch counter at the five-and-dime store near the Governor’s Mansion. At the time, dining facilities were strictly segregated. A white mob arrived. Some students were beaten, and one was knocked unconscious. Others were doused with ketchup, mustard and sugar.
Next I ran by the Greyhound Bus station, where a bus with nine Freedom Riders aboard arrived in 1961, the third group of Riders into Jackson. A total of 329 people were arrested in for integrating public transportation facilities, convicted on “breach of peace” and jailed. Most refused bail and were sent to the state penitentiary, but their protest worked. In September 1961, the federal government mandated that segregation in interstate transportation end.
I will forever be in debt to those who came before me and risked their lives so that I and others like me can enjoy the freedoms of every other American citizen. This knowledge made those tough hills not seem so tough. It made me realize that I was running because I wanted to, not because I was running away from someone. Not because I was somewhere I was told I could not be. I honestly cannot imagine what it must have been like to be hated because of the color of my skin.
I have seen all of the pictures in the magazines and on the news about police hitting people in the head with clubs just because they were black and walking in the streets. I remember the news clips of people turning high pressured water hoses on others just because they were not white. And to think that Rosa Parks was jailed for sitting in a front seat of the bus. It is amazing to think that all of that and more — worse — happened just 50 years ago.
When I looked around the group of runners, there were those who looked like me and those who did not. No one even thought twice about who should be there and who should not; we were all welcome and we all ran the same course. I am happy there are no longer “whites only” and “coloreds only” restrooms or water fountains. No one at the water stations turned me away or gave me a scornful look. Strangers high-fived me just like they high-fived everyone else. I did not feel different or excluded for any reason.
I am not sure if I would have been strong enough 50 years ago (had I been older than 2) to join in the struggle. I do not know if I would have allowed things to change on my behalf without bucking the system. I just do not know. Fortunately, that is not a decision I’ve ever had to make.
Fortunately I was able to not only participate in this race, but to eat in the restaurant of my choosing in Jackson, Mississippi, because people of all colors cared enough stand up and fight for the rights of African Americans. Not only did people fight, many shed blood and others died. That knowledge makes my medal more precious than gold.
Rock on Jackson, rock on.
Do you ever think about what it might have been like to run at another time? How do you honor those who struggled so that you might run?