Strength to pursue our ideals
In 1963, I was a senior at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Alabama. That was the year, a bright, intensely idealistic, not very savvy girl learned to retreat.
Put me in context. My parents were immigrants who left Europe with my brother during World War II to escape persecution because their ethnic background was Jewish. I was born in New York, and after years there and in Boston, my parents moved to Birmingham in 1953. I was seven.
My father felt he had behaved in less than courageous fashion in Europe on occasion, and he decided he would not hide his progressive views in Birmingham. He helped start the Alabama Council on Human Relations so that blacks and whites could meet together and communicate, a simple enough proposition which at the time was illegal according to Birmingham city ordinances.
I was raised with a heavy dose of: “all men are created equal.” Birmingham schools were still segregated in the early ‘60s, and during my high school summers, my parents sent me to an integrated camp in Vermont, where, among more typical camp activities, we sang freedom songs.
When I started my sophomore year at Shades Valley, I was rushed by four of the five sororities there, but my mother forbade me to join any of them because she knew they were exclusionary and had wounded girls who were not asked to pledge. I attempted to bridge the gap between home and school by having discussions with classmates about politics, history, communism, and integration.
By 1963, the Civil Rights Movement arrived in Birmingham in full force. Marchers were attacked downtown with fire hoses and police dogs and often jailed. Black people sitting-in at lunch counters were refused service and sometimes arrested as well. The homes of activists were bombed, and many were beaten. In the fall of 1963, when I was already off at college, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, and four little girls were killed.
During my senior year of high school some white friends and I met regularly at each other’s homes to continue elaborate intellectual discussions. Some black friends (I had met through camp contacts) and I met occasionally to continue in our generation the type of dialogue my parents fostered in theirs. I wanted to join the marchers downtown, but my mother forbade my participation.
The sociopolitical climate in and outside school grew hotter. In my senior year, hostile classmates followed me and my friends in the halls and in the lunchroom. They pointed at my sandals, my pierced ears, my long hair, not the standard Shades Valley uniform at the time. They called us names. They made weird noises when they saw us. Some of my friends had crosses burned in their yards. An article appeared in The Birmingham News alleging that there was a communist cell at Shades Valley. My father appealed to our neighbor who was an FBI agent to have the paper retract the story. When I got hostile phone calls at home, my mother insisted I get off the phone, not argue with the callers. The school counselor wrote negative recommendations to try to keep me from being accepted into college. The high school principal called me into his office and said he had tried to manipulate my grades in every way he could to keep me from being valedictorian, but he had failed. “You know,” he said “that integration and communism are the same thing.”
I realize that the treatment my friends and I received was nothing in comparison to the treatment of the activists downtown, some of whom were children. All of us must come of age, move from childhood into adulthood, and learn to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Still, we should be able to move into adulthood with the strength to pursue our ideals, at least in some practical fashion. I learned that it is not safe to be open and honest, and, despite decades of activities and activism, some of which required great courage, a part of me has been in retreat ever since.