By Vernon A. Williams
The fire in the eyes of this marvelous new militancy forces many who grew up in the sixties to reflect. Indeed, today’s promise is substantially more hopeful for sustainable change than any period in memory. Still, it is critical never to forget on whose shoulders these millennium freedom fighters stand.
We are stronger when we connect today’s strength to yesterday’s foundation.
Before the name of Rosa Parks was known around the world, my mother and I were on a bus from Gary, Indiana to Pascagoula, Mississippi. About a hundred miles away, the bus pulled over for a scheduled stop.
She woke me to use the restroom. Like all depots in the south at the time, there was a “white’s only” facility inside and, around back, an enclosed toilet with a sign over the door that read, “colored.”
My mother considered complying, but the putrid odor that rushed out when she opened the crooked door overcame us both. She refused and pulled me to the shiny, aromatic restroom inside – ignoring glares and stares.
We got back on the bus and went to our seat – surprised by an overweight, grouchy, older white man sitting there. Mother smiled, leaned over and politely informed him he was in our seat. Rather than amicably going back to any number of vacant seats slightly further back, he frowned and responded with a dismissive “Hmphhh.”
In a voice that was respectful but more firm, she said, “There are vacant seats all over the bus, mister. My bags are overhead and I really don’t want to move everything. Can we please have our seat.” Then she stood waiting as I watched the two.” He barked with a drawl, “If it’s so many seats, y’all better find one.” She asked a third time and this time he didn’t even dignify the question with a glance in our direction.
Without hesitation, she said, “Fine.” Then she sat right there next to him in the slight space left beyond his girth. She picked me up, sat me on her lap and made sure she pressed against him with intentional force. Feeling her arm against his, he recoiled, leapt to his feet with a grimace and mumbled, “‘outta my way,” then walked past us to the back.
It was my first brush with racism. We were the only Black folks on the bus and that chance confrontation could have turned ugly – even deadly. But God was with us. Lesson learned: speak up without fear to claim what is rightfully yours.
That experience was a precursor to growing up in Gary, a city that served as an incubator for Black pride and African American achievement.
Black boys raised in the Steel City found no shortage of positive male role models.
The lengthy list includes IU legend George Taliaferro, assistant superintendent of schools Dr. Haron J. Battle Sr.; attorney and activist Hilbert Bradley; construction magnate Mamon Powers Sr.; Mayor Richard Hatcher; publisher James T. Harris; legendary track coach John Campbell; men of God, like Reverend Julius James and Dr. Robert Lowery.
Black girls were nurtured by women like Dr. YJean Cambers, Senator Carolyn Mosby, Urban League Director Eloise Gentry, Councilwoman Dharathula Millender, Gary police icon Pauline Hudson, Chamber of Commerce Director Maxine Young, educator Frankie McCullough, publisher Imogene Harris, Dr. Debra McCullough; Senator Katie Hall, Teacher’s Union leader Sandra Irons, record company owner Vivian Carter and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
There is not enough column space or memory to name them all.
But in a city frequently maligned by mischaracterizations of African American life, one success story after another has emerged for generations. Despite the negative, false narratives, Gary products have excelled in myriad professions throughout the country and around the world.
Hearing the articulate, uncompromising, focused voices emanating from African American youth and young adults since the brutal lynching of George Floyd, there is a feeling more than ever that the rich legacy of Black America is secured.
We all need to pause for a moment to say THANK YOU for the revolution they have ignited and to let these proud, committed emerging revolutionaries know that they have made their ancestors proud. The future is bright.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].