We Don’t Have Time to Cry
On Thanksgiving night 1942, when I was fifteen years old, white racists burned our house to the ground. It was the home I was born in, as were my older sister, Edythe, and my younger brother, Obie Leonard. My father, Obadiah (Obie), had built it with his own hands in 1920, on my grandfather’s land. The house was simple and plain, but we felt fortunate to have it. We knew scores of black sharecroppers around us who were not living on their own land, and some of their homes were little more than shacks.
Shortly before bedtime, my parents smelled smoke. In what seemed like minutes, fire whipped through our home. Running for their lives, my parents grabbed my brother, Obie, and made it through the doorway, collapsing onto the grass. My mother’s wails pierced my daddy’s heart. They had escaped the flames with little more than the clothes on their backs. Edythe and I were away, rehearsing for a performance with the school choir. We returned to find that many of our prized possessions (clothes, family albums, our beautiful furniture, and our prized Victrola with the Bessie Smith record collection) were gone. Nothing was left of them but red coals and a dull glob of black vinyl.
Our father hushed our cries and shook us from our misery. “We don’t have time to cry,” he told us. He led us in prayer and told us to give thanks because we still had our lives. He even made us say we forgave those who had destroyed our home. I repeated the words to please my father, but I am not sure I really meant them.
I was only fifteen, but I was not naïve. In our little backwoods town of Heiberger, Alabama, terrorist acts at the hands of men and women with hate in their hearts were never far from me. They came with the territory. And we had few ways to get help or justice. We had no phone to call for help, but even if we had, I knew no fire trucks would have come. Nor would police or laws have protected us. In the eyes of whites, we were a black family of “nobodies” living in a place that was not a real town, a mere post office address twelve miles from rural Marion, Alabama—the middle of nowhere.
Ours was the same cruel reality with which blacks living throughout the South were all too familiar. In 1857 the notorious Dred Scott decision had affirmed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In 1942, the Dred Scott decision was still the law of the land. White supremacy reigned; antebellum laws protected the white man’s way of life and made ours miserable. Not only did Dred Scott hover over us like a menacing vulture, but the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision engraved inequality in stone under the guise of “separate but equal” provisions. All forms of democracy were beyond our reach, including our vote, won briefly after Reconstruction following the Civil War, but circumvented through grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and outright tyranny.
A 1940 study on voting practices concluded that black disenfranchisement was nearly universal in the Deep South. In Alabama, as in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, no more than 2.5 percent of Negroes of voting age cast ballots in the 1940 presidential race. In Marion, near where I lived, and the surrounding countryside of Perry County, there were about 1,000 whites and 2,000 blacks, but as late as 1955 only about 150 black people were registered to vote.
As if the laws weren’t oppressive enough, legal restrictions were backed up by the Ku Klux Klan and mob rule. Between 1882 and 1946, there were about 3,400 lynchings in the South. One of them was of my great-uncle, who had been accused of dating a white woman, although his “crime” was never proven. Proof was unnecessary. All that was needed were innuendo and rumor. Whispers were enough to spark mob rule. One day a white woman showed up on my aunt’s doorstep calling out, “Come look!” What my aunt saw, or so the story goes, was her husband hanging from a sycamore tree. His body was so riddled with bullets that it looked as though it had been used for target practice.
When my family had our brush with evil the night of the fire, I saw the awful face of hate clearly, although the perpetrators were never identified. I could not see any rational reason or purpose for our being burned out of our home. But when I look back at it through the lens of time, I see those awful charred embers as preparation. That night, I witnessed faith in action. I did not see fear in my father’s eyes. In fact, the very next day, he exhibited nerves of steel. He went to work like nothing had happened, no doubt looking into the faces of those who had done this horrible thing. He would not give the terrorists the satisfaction of knowing their evil acts could bend or break him.
Our burned-out home served as a primer, a prelude, an introduction. The postcard from hell was my first taste of evil, the kind that shows up at your door in such a way that you can never forget its smell, its taste, its sting. That kind of ugliness would not remain in the shadows of that dark country night; no, it would follow me for the rest of my days.
Fortunately, I learned early how to live with fear for the people I loved. As I would go on to face my own fiery trials, I sought to obtain that same kind of internal fortitude that my dad exemplified. He had the ability to deny people with ugly agendas the power to chase him from his mission. When fear rushed in, I learned how to hear my heart racing, but refused to allow my feelings to sway me.
That resilience came from my family. It flowed through our bloodline. Before I was married to Martin and became a King, I was a proud Scott, shaped by my mother’s discernment and my father’s strength. Knowing what I know now, if I could have chosen parents, I would have chosen exactly the ones God selected for me: a hardworking, faithful, courageous father and a loving, nurturing, farsighted mother.
My father was one of the most fearless men I’ve ever met. The racial pressure on him was relentless, but it never broke him. Growing up, he provided me with incredible examples of courage. He stood at only about five feet seven inches, but he was a powerhouse. Curiously enough, he was resented because he was a hard worker and independent. He believed in rising before the sun, and would always tell us kids, “Get up early even if you don’t do anything but sit down, so you won’t be lazy.” By 4:00 a.m., hours before daybreak, he would begin to haul lumber. He was the only black man around who had a truck, which he used to transport logs. He also cut hair, collected and sold scrap iron, and did other odd jobs to pick up extra income.
It seemed like my father was always being threatened, especially when he hauled his lumber to the train station. The whites, who were angry because he was in competition with them, would lie in wait, stop him on the road, pull out their guns, and curse him, calling him every name they could think of. He told us he never took his eyes off them. “If you look a white man straight in the eyes, he can’t harm you,” he said. When he was threatened, the other black men who worked with him were so frightened they would disappear into the woods, leaving my dad alone. But he never ran. If he had, they might have shot him in the back.
At some point, in the face of these constant threats, he began carrying a gun. Now, my daddy wouldn’t have killed a soul, but he placed the gun in the glove compartment of his truck, which he left open so that anyone could see he had it. He wasn’t trying to intimidate his attackers. He was just letting them know he wasn’t unarmed. Once, I overheard him telling Mother, “I don’t know if I’ll get back tonight because they just might kill me.” Every time we heard a car coming, and it wasn’t my dad’s, my sister and I would tremble. We thought it was somebody coming to tell us our dad had been killed.
After the fire, we stayed in my maternal grandfather and grandmother’s house until my father found a home to rent. It was an old house, an old unpainted house, about four rooms and a big porch across the front and a well in back. Eventually, my father saved money to buy some land and build a new home. He also saved enough money to do something unheard-of for a black man trying to survive in the mid-1940s. After years of hauling timber, saving his meager funds, and dodging racial threats, he decided to make the giant leap to owning his own lumber mill. He even employed a white man to oversee the day’s work. This courageous and history-making move by the grandson of a slave in the backwoods of Alabama only fueled the hateful intentions of the local whites, who were determined to keep black men subservient.
My father had owned the sawmill for about two weeks when a logger came to him and asked to buy it. When my father refused, the logger threatened him, saying, “Well, it’ll never do you any good.” The next Monday, when my father arrived at his sawmill, the inevitable had happened: the mill had been burned to the ground.
But that didn’t stop him. He was a determined man. In 1946, he started a grocery store in the building next to the new home he had built. This time the whites allowed it to survive, and that little country store shone with a spirit of compassion. Soon he was able to add a one-pump gas station and automobile services (oil change, air for tires, and so on). Both blacks and whites patronized the store, buying groceries—often on credit, which went unpaid. Or Dad would lend folks money out of his pocket. Sometimes the borrowers would pay a little on their accounts, and he would let them charge a bigger portion. When he died in 1998, shortly before turning one hundred, the amount people owed him for groceries and loans over a span of forty years added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He never let the mounting debt worry him.
Unlike my father, who generally blamed conditions rather than people for the way blacks were treated, my mother, Bernice McMurry Scott, was more resentful of the racist people around us. “You just can’t trust whites,” she would say. In later years, she did develop friendships with whites, which was only natural, since her mother, Mollie McMurry, my grandmother, was part Irish. My mother was fair skinned, with high cheekbones and straight black hair. Usually she wore her hair in two braids that reached almost to her waist; she looked like an American Indian, as she took after her father, Martin McMurry, who was part Native American. She had a pioneering spirit, which went against the grain not only for what whites expected of Negro women, but for what Negro men expected as well. In the 1920s she was the first black woman in our community to drive a car. Later, she learned how to drive a truck, and eventually, a school bus converted from a truck. She was also quite musically inclined, singing solos and playing the piano at church on Sundays, and I credit her for my musical abilities.
My mother had a sweet disposition, but she was a no-nonsense kind of person. She did not gossip about people. Down on the farm with nothing much to do, some folks made it their habit to visit with one another and talk about other people’s business. Mother had an expression: “Seldom visits make long friends.” In other words, friendships will be longer lasting if you don’t go visiting much. When you do, there’s the tendency toward idle gossip and the potential to have conflicts and to fall out.
Years later, when Martin and I moved to Montgomery, he used to ask me, “Why don’t you go visit some of the members or some of the women in the church?” I would tell him, “I’m perfectly satisfied to be home. I enjoy being by myself,” while my mother’s words echoed in my head. Seldom visits make long friends.
My mother, who lived to be ninety-two, was a good judge of people, too. She had what they call discernment. She loved to help others and was very compassionate, but she needed to know people, and she didn’t warm up to you until she knew you. She had to look you over and feel you out. Once she felt that you were okay, she would do anything in the world for you. I must admit, I’m a lot like her. I’ve never warmed up to people quickly. Once I feel comfortable, though, I’m very open. Unfortunately, this quality has often been interpreted as aloofness—just like with my mother. Because she had a fair complexion, people thought she was stuck up. But she was not arrogant, and neither am I. She just believed in minding her own business—though she was always there when you needed her, and was a very giving person when you got to know her. She was not about to let people take advantage of her, however, and I am a lot like that, too.
A day came when I had to ask my mother the same questions every black child asked sooner or later: “Why am I treated differently? Why do whites hate us so?” My mother answered in much the same way black mothers have answered for generations.
“You are just as good as anyone else,” she said. “You get an education. Then you won’t have to be kicked around.”
The value of education was a constant drumbeat from my mother, and I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know I was going to college. After all, my mother said I would. Despite the fact that, unfortunately, for most blacks in the South, education was virtually out of reach when I was growing up. Where we lived in Perry County, free education did not exist for blacks beyond the sixth grade. And while whites attended school for nine months a year, in general, blacks were entitled to go for only three months. Mother had a fourth-grade education, and Father made it through one year of high school before deficient funds forced him to quit. Nevertheless, both of them had high ideals for their children, and they prayed that a way would open for us to achieve the educational goals they had been denied.
My mother, who sounded like the feminists of today even in the 1950s, would stress, “If you get an education and try to be somebody, you won’t have to depend on anyone—not even a man.” My mother married my father when she was seventeen. I believe she wished she had not married so young. I remember her saying, “I never was a child. I’ve been a woman all my life.” That was not the kind of life she wanted for me and my sister. If and when we married, she wanted us to be more than “just” a wife. When her sister, who attended Tuskegee Institute, the college started by Booker T. Washington, talked about the excitement of college, you could almost see the wheels turning in my mother’s head.
It was radical for my mother to have such thoughts in those days. At that time, the ideal husband took care of his wife as if she were his property. She was assigned to the home and to child rearing. I was intrigued by the thought that, as a woman, I could have my own goals that went beyond merely being dependent on a man—though I did want to marry and have children.
As exciting as it was to think I could aspire to something beyond cooking and cleaning the house, I absorbed the derogatory examples I saw of how women and blacks were treated, and I wondered how all that could change. I saw white children riding yellow-checkered buses to their school, yet, in all kinds of weather, we black children walked three miles to our one-room schoolhouse and three miles back home. Somehow the driver of the white children would manage to steer the bus so that it kicked dust in our faces or slopped mud on our clothes, to the delight of his passengers, who often cheered as he sped by us.
I attended elementary school before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education suit knocked down Plessy v. Ferguson, which sanctioned “separate but equal” education. Our education was not designed to be equal to that of the white students; it was meant to keep us separate and isolated from resources, so that we remained on the bottom rung. When I realized how inferior our little one-room schoolhouse was to the school attended by whites, I resented them. Though I never set foot in it, the whites’ elementary school was in a nice brick building with all sorts of equipment. In ours, we had no labs, no library, and only a few books, most of which were tattered and out-of-date. More than a hundred children in grades one through six were crammed into one big room. While the whites received books for free, we had to pay for ours, and most of us couldn’t afford them. Though our resources were inferior, however, our teachers were superior. They loved us and expected us to excel, as did our parents.
As strange as it may seem, despite the terrifying instances of white hate and the pervasiveness of racism, most of my childhood was happy. My parents provided a nurturing environment, and most of the people in our all-black community were kinfolk. And I had siblings (Edythe, older than me by two years, and Obie, younger by three) whom I adored. Edythe was the bookworm. Obie was the fixer who could repair anything. I was the doer, a workaholic always looking for a project.
As children, we didn’t have money for store-bought games or toys, so we fashioned our own. One of our favorite pastimes was swinging. We would take an old tire, attach a rope to it, tie it to a tree, and that would be our swing. We also climbed trees and played Little Sally Walker. There were other things we wanted to do, but we had to accept that we just could not do them. There were no recreation facilities for black children. Marion had a swimming pool, but blacks were not allowed to use it. I tried to learn to swim in a pond instead, and almost drowned. The experience was so frightening that I never learned to swim as an adult; I never grew past it, and it affected me deeply.
Still, I felt secure growing up surrounded by kin (cousins and all my half-uncles and half-aunts from Grandfather Scott’s second marriage) in the close-knit community of Marion’s North Perry County. Marion, first called Muckle Ridge, had been renamed in honor of Gen. Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” hero of the American Revolution. Whites took pride in the fact that a Marion schoolteacher designed the first Confederate flag and the Confederate uniform.
None of that much mattered to blacks. We took pride in knowing that our all-black community represented three generations of black ownership. My grandfather Jeff Scott and my grandmother Cora owned three hundred acres of land, which produced pine timber for sale and vegetables of every kind, and which fed our family and provided leftovers for others. More than anything else, this tradition of landownership helped to instill in us racial pride, self-respect, and dignity. We were self-reliant, as reliant as any black could be in the racist South.
Our grandfathers hoped that they could pass on to future generations this legacy of land ownership. In many ways, their wishes were realized. The Scotts still own hundreds of acres of land in Alabama, land that I farmed as a girl.
From age six, when I was barely able to hold a hoe, I worked our fields. We raised corn, peas, potatoes, and garden vegetables. We also had hogs, chickens, and cows. Edythe and I both had to milk a cow every day. Not only did we milk them, but we’d take them to the pasture and bring them back in the evening. Sometimes we had to go to the pasture late at night to get the cows. There would be no moon, and it’d be so dark you couldn’t see your feet before you. Sometimes the cows weren’t at the gate, and we’d have to keep calling them until we heard their bells tinkling. Only then would we know where to find them, and we would run after them. Most always, we were barefoot, so we ran, praying all the way that we wouldn’t step on a snake.
When the Depression deepened in the late 1930s, and I was about ten years old, my sister and I began working as hired hands, picking cotton. Oh Lord, I chopped and picked plenty of cotton to help pay for our schooling. We would be picked up before the crack of dawn and taken to the fields, which were quite a distance away. We’d work from sunup to sundown, sometimes to earn only sixty cents a day, though that was good money in the Depression years.
They’d always have a white male overseer to keep us working. The overseer would be ahead of us, trying to make everybody catch up with him. I was always competitive, so I kept up, and he bragged about me, saying, “Whenever I needed help, I would come straight to Obie Scott’s house and get it.” In an effort to keep Edythe from getting behind, I would often hoe her row, then come back to mine.
The sun was scalding hot, and I’d be so tired at the end of the twelve-hour days that I would nearly drop, but I was proud of my cotton-picking skills because my abilities furthered our hopes of getting an education. I had to pick a hundred pounds of cotton to get sixty cents; later, it got to be as much as a dollar for a hundred pounds. Once, I picked 209 pounds in a day and received $2.09, a tidy sum back then.
When Edythe finished her elementary education at Crossroads School, our family pooled the money we earned to help her go to the Hale County Training School. Because of the lack of educational opportunities in our community, my daddy had to pay for her room and board away from home in the town of Greensboro, Alabama. Yet, I never heard anyone complain. My mother always said that we were going to get an education, even if she had to sacrifice to the point where she had only one dress to wear.
The fact that Edythe was going to continue her schooling made me even more confident that I would, too. My mother’s determination that I get an education made me understand that there was something wonderful awaiting me. If that weren’t the case, why would she continue to be so insistent on my being prepared? I may not have known exactly where I was going, but I was excited about getting there. Somewhere. I would think of Judy Garland singing about a place somewhere over the rainbow. I kept looking and hoping that my somewhere would come.
A deeply religious child, I placed my faith in God to provide answers and a path. I would ponder His awesome work; how He had put the universe, the planets, and the galaxies together; and yet, He hadn’t forgotten about me down on the farm. I would rock back and forth, count the stars, listen to the wind rustle around the pine cones, and wonder who I was, why I was on the planet, and where my place was in such a grand display of celestial artistry. In relationship to all I could see, would my life be like a pinpoint, a windmill, a shooting star, or a blade of grass to be trampled underfoot? Isolated, in the rural South, black, and female, I didn’t see much to suggest that I could have a bright future—except for my parents’ coaching. Most of the signals I received from the outside world were red lights warning me to stop, to back up my dreams. At the same time, I felt an inner self in motion; she was excited and ready to go, but where? I didn’t know.
I used to sit at the mirror for hours, staring, trying to figure out who I was. Why am I here? I know God made me, but why? I would stare for so long and my mind would wander so far away that I grew frightened. Sometimes I felt I was looking at another person. It was like I wanted answers and I wasn’t getting them fast enough, so my imagination, my mind, would take off without me. I was quite good at dream-walking.
When I was a child, church was the center of my social life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go to services at Mount Tabor AME Zion, about four miles from our home. Most people walked the distance barefoot because they didn’t want to get their Sunday shoes dirty. Some of the men carried a rag, which they would slap across their leather shoes to give them luster when they neared the church. From my child’s eye, Mount Tabor was a huge white frame structure unspoiled even by its cracking and peeling white paint. It was heated by a pot-bellied stove. Kerosene lamps provided the light.
Both my grandfathers were church leaders. Grandfather Scott would often open the Sunday school service by singing a hymn or leading a prayer. Grandfather McMurry, who had a fine baritone voice, would “line the hymns,” setting the pitch for the choir to join in.
While I had hopes and dreams, I also had fears that sometimes kept me awake at night. At Mount Tabor, the preachers talked a lot about sin, damnation, and hell. These fired-up sermons kept me on edge. I was afraid of committing sins that would condemn me to burn in hell instead of joining God in that mysterious heaven hidden beyond the clouds. When I was ten, I heard about a lady who was on her deathbed; she had been forgiven by God for everything but cutting her hair. My mother had cut my hair, and for a spell, I was obsessed with the idea that cutting my hair might send me to hell. (Even after I was married, I didn’t like to cut my hair, though I don’t believe that childhood obsession was the reason. It was Martin. He used to say, “Corrie, that’s your trademark. Don’t cut your hair.”)
When the older folks thought it was about time for children to join the church, they would send us to the mourners’ bench. One night, when I was about ten, we were having a revival; every night, the preacher was preaching up a storm. During the revival, I was told to sit on that bench, where the sisters of the church would mourn and pray over me until they were satisfied that I had religion. They kept telling me I was going to hell because I was so mean. I didn’t think I was mean, although I would fight a lot. I guess I was pretty straitlaced, and I thought I was right about everything. When anybody disagreed with me, I would haul off and sock them. I was very strong, and I could beat up both my sister and brother. But I didn’t know how they knew all that at church. Maybe God had told them, I thought, and I cried out of shame. The more I cried, the more they mourned and prayed. Everything became so intense and emotional that I thought I felt something, and I stood up and joined the Church.
It was there at Mount Tabor AME Zion that my love of music and my future career were born. Edythe and I would often sing duets, and by the time I was fifteen, I was directing the choir and leading such songs as “Does Jesus Care?” (“Yes, my Jesus cares / Yes, my Jesus cares”). The song was sung softly and somberly. Our church was not what you would call a “shouting church”; we left that to the more emotional Baptists.
As a faithful teenager, it was hard for me to reconcile the lessons of Christian living I learned in church with the way whites who also called themselves Christians behaved toward us. Sometimes our father would take us to town on Saturdays, where we were greeted by Whites Only signs and made to go to the back door to get a sandwich. When we bought ice cream, we had to wait until all the whites had been served. No matter what flavor I asked for, the druggist would usually give me vanilla—served at the back door. Such treatment made me question whether my skin color was something I could rub off, since it seemed to be the cause of the problem. But church was an escape and a sanctuary from these daily degradations, and it sustained our faith that the Red Sea would be parted and opportunities would await us on the other side.
It is often said that the soul attracts that which it secretly harbors. Mother and I continued to harbor a vision, not out of desperation but out of faith, that I would get the chance to continue my education. Then an opportunity opened that pushed me closer to an understanding of my purpose. Mother figured out a way to send me to Lincoln Normal School, a semi-private high school founded by former slaves and supported by the American Missionary Association in Marion. She sent both me and Edythe there. The AMA, an antislavery society founded by Congregational ministers and laypersons in 1846, provided some of the best education for blacks in the South. Lincoln’s faculty was mixed (half white, half black), and most were from the North. The white faculty treated the Negro students with love. They were dedicated. For that very reason, most of the white townspeople in Marion despised the teachers and delighted in calling them “nigger lovers.”
There were no dormitories at Lincoln during the years that I attended, and to drive back and forth from Marion to Lincoln each day would have been too burdensome, so I had to stay with other families to be able to attend the school. That was fine with me. I was quite excited to enroll, and felt nurtured and embraced in Lincoln’s halls, though when I tried to take a job doing housework for a white woman in Marion to supplement my parents’ stipend, she expected me to be docile, to scrape and bow and use the back door. Her requests made me feel unworthy. To consent to her demands would have meant that I agreed with her negative assessment of me. I was not then, or ever, the submissive, subservient type. That job didn’t last.
Regardless of these challenges, at Lincoln I knew I was being shaped for my destiny. This shaping was not the work of human hands, but suggested a divine intervention. I had been plucked from the middle of nowhere, where I was surrounded by islands of hostility, and placed in an environment of enlightenment. White teachers saw worth in me. In time, I saw past the terrible symbols of burning crosses, hateful words, and malicious intent and discovered that there were real, loving people under a skin color that so often meant trouble or heartache for our community. My white teachers laughed, cried, went to church, and attended county fairs. Underneath the skin—the skin that had been so foreboding to me—were people with good hearts and fair minds. It was important for me to understand this. As a child who had seen mostly the worst behavior of whites, it was critical for me to see a better side, and I feel now that these early contacts were divine connections. They reached me before the meanness that I had seen could create cement walls of enmity within my soul.
Inside the protective walls of Lincoln, my horizons were expanded. I began to understand more about being connected to a larger society and to people outside my community. Despite the reaction of the townspeople, the devotion of the dedicated faculty was richly rewarded by the harvest they produced. A study conducted by the late Horace Mann Bond in the 1950s found that the largest number of blacks with PhDs in the nation had roots right there in Perry County, of which Marion was a part. Another illustration of the school’s influence was revealed at the twenty-fifth reunion of the Lincoln Class of 1943, at which the assembled graduates discovered that all their children who were old enough were either attending college or had completed four years of education at an institution of higher learning. This was Lincoln’s influence.
It’s also interesting that three major civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph D. Abernathy, and Andrew Young, married women from Perry County, two of whom attended Lincoln. Jean Childs, who was three grades behind me at Lincoln, graduated from Manchester College in Indiana, became a special education teacher, and married Young. Juanita Jones from Uniontown, Alabama, attended Selma University, a prestigious K–12 boarding school for “Negro” children, and graduated from Tennessee State University. She became a teacher and married Ralph Abernathy.
Many of the faculty impressed me, showing me the kind of person I wanted to become, but one of them in particular, my music teacher, Miss Olive J. Williams, a Howard University graduate, became my first role model outside of my family. She played the piano, directed the chorus, and taught us Beginning Voice and Music Appreciation. She had us singing Handel’s Messiah, which was unusual for a high school in the South in that era. As we went through the vocal exercises, she also taught us posture and good diction, and introduced me to the world of classical music and composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. Before seventh grade, I had never heard classical music. Upon hearing it, I loved it. We learned of the great concert performers of the day, some of whom were black. There was world-famous baritone Paul Robeson. There was Marian Anderson, the world’s greatest contralto; and Roland Hayes, one of the great tenors. Learning about them made me dare to dream that I, too, could become a concert artist.
Quakers also served on the staff at Lincoln, and they started introducing us to peace activists. I met the great pacifist and peace activist Bayard Rustin, who would later play a key role with my husband and me in the civil rights movement—right there in ninth grade. At Lincoln, he addressed the student assembly and spoke about India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire through the power of nonviolence. He told us how the British beat the Indians to a pulp, but in the end the Indians won their independence without firing a single shot. In a climate so punctuated by violence, I was fascinated by Rustin’s lecture on how conflict could be resolved without war or bloodshed. I pondered the idea and filed it away in my memory.
Lincoln presented a ray of hope for me. Still, this was a small island in a vast sea of racial hostility; it was not enough. Like so many blacks, I knew I had to migrate from the South. I needed a place to chase my dream, a dream that didn’t have a name or a shape, but that awaited me nonetheless. It was like a pull, a gentle tug with a sharp edge of urgency. I had to escape, to get out of Alabama.
Thousands of blacks had left before me, either chased out by the tyranny of white folks or led by visions of a better life in a northern promised land. Shortly before my birth, the steady flow of migration began. Southern blacks deserted their marginal farms and sharecropping in droves. By 1923, nearly five hundred thousand blacks had resettled in the North. In 1930, one Negro out of every five lived above the Mason-Dixon line. After World War II another three million left. Some were like my uncle, army sergeant Jasper Scott, who became embittered when he saw that German POWs were treated with more respect than black native sons. After fighting in the war, returning to the South briefly, and working with my father, he moved to Cleveland rather than fight another war at home with southern whites. The South was losing not only its farming class, but also the so-called Talented Tenth, those black men and women who sought higher education and resources to improve their lives and the lives of others.
My escape route opened up through Lincoln. My sister, Edythe, sang alto with a musical group called the Lincoln School Little Chorus. Lincoln faculty members (and, later, good friends of Edythe’s and mine) Frances and Cecil Thomas arranged for the chorus to go on tour, and one of the stopping points was Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Obviously the chorus impressed Antioch such that two years later, when the college decided to open its doors wider to blacks by granting a limited number of scholarships, Antioch officials contacted Lincoln to request its two top students. Edythe, who was valedictorian, applied and was accepted. After passing a test, she received a letter offering her a full scholarship, tuition plus room and board. So, in the summer of 1943, Edythe became, for a time, the only black student at Antioch College. She wrote me glowing letters about the respect she received there, so after graduating as valedictorian of my class, I, too, applied, and was accepted in 1945.
And so it was that one of my mother’s lifelong dreams for me, as well as my own, was coming true: I was going to college.
Copyright © 2017 by Coretta Scott King