Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. – 1964 at the Jasper city pool

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I grew up in Louisville, a beautiful city situated along the Ohio River in north-central Kentucky.  Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War.  As such, it shares characteristics of both the north and the south.  Louisville is more Midwestern than southern and has much in common with the Ohio River cities of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  From Louisville, traveling only 80 miles eastward to the city of Lexington, where I attended the University of Kentucky, transports one into the Deep South.   The contrast is remarkable.

My parents divorced when I was five.  Shortly afterwards, my older brother went to live with mom’s parents in southeastern Kentucky.  I stayed with mom, whose earnings as a nurse’s aide barely kept us afloat.  During the summer, when school was out, I was shipped off to spend several weeks with family. My summers were split between visiting my grandparents in southeastern Kentucky and staying with family in northern Alabama.

In the little town of Jasper, Alabama, I could enjoy time with my cousins under the loving eye of my mom’s older sister, Aunt Bette.  I have many fond memories of the warm summer days there, fishing, digging in the large vegetable garden, playing ball and frolicking with my cousin Philip.  Philip and I spent  many a day at Jasper’s city swimming pool, only a few blocks from Aunt Bette’s house.  To me, life in Jasper was something akin to living in television’s fanciful town of Mayberry.  The image will resonate for those who remember the Andy Griffith Show.

Traveling to Alabama was a fascinating experience for a young boy.  I usually went by train on the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad.  My maternal grandmother Myrtle would accompany me back and forth.  My granddad Jim was a locomotive engineer for the L&N, so he and granny enjoyed free travel by rail.

Union Station in Louisville was a behemoth mixture of wrought iron,  granite, polished marble and stained glass—a magnificent structure. There we boarded the Pan American express for our journey.  The ride to Alabama took us through Nashville to our final stop in Birmingham.  Aunt Bette’s husband, my dear Uncle John, would meet us at the Birmingham station.  From there it was a short drive to Jasper and my summer residence.

The contrast between Midwest and Deep South was remarkable, even for a young lad.  It was immediately evident upon entering the train station in Birmingham.  Unlike the station in Louisville, Birmingham’s was filled with the signs of a racially segregated south.  There were separate drinking fountains, restrooms and waiting areas marked “whites only” and “colored only.”  The first time I walked into the Birmingham station, my Midwestern mind didn’t get it. Granny tried to explain to me what segregation was all about, but the cruelty of what I was seeing didn’t register with my young brain.

Outside the station was more evidence.  There were cabs for “coloreds” along with movie theaters, restaurants, bars, barber shops, benches at the bus stops, and dozens of other examples.  As I would later find out, there were also schools and yes—even swimming pools designated for “colored only.”

Unbeknownst to me, the city pool in Jasper was for white people only.  At least that’s how it was during my first two summers there.  This changed on July 2, 1964, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land.  I was much too young to understand the full impact of what was going on, but I was fortunate to witness firsthand a piece of history in the making. I still remember it clearly.

I was at the city pool when the first test of the new Civil Rights Act occurred.   On a sunny afternoon in August, a lone young black man wearing a t-shirt and swimming trunks entered the pool area.  With many of the whites staring in various states of confusion and disbelief, the man walked to the grassy area at the deep end of the pool where he spread out his towel on the ground

No one knew it at the time, but the brave man who dared venture into the formerly whites only swimming pool was handpicked for the task.  After removing his shirt and sandals, he headed straight for the high dive.  He climbed the ladder, confidently walked towards the end of the diving board and proceeded to perform a perfect one and one-half somersault into the water.  Swimming to the ladder, he exited the water and made another beeline for the diving board.

Over the next few minutes, the young man put on a mesmerizing display of diving, with each twisting and turning dive seeming more difficult than the preceding one.  While the young man was performing, everyone watching (myself included) seemed unaware of the dozen or more young blacks entering the pool area. Everyone was enjoying the show.  When the show finally ended, everyone simply went back to what they were doing before.  Amazing!

It was in this simple way that segregation peacefully ended at the city pool in Jasper, Alabama.  At least that’s how I remember it.  Unfortunately, desegregation didn’t occur as smoothly in many other places.  Fifty years later, I’m glad to live in a country where a person’s color isn’t as important as the “content of their character.”1 We still have much room for improvement, but we have steadily advanced the cause that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave so much for—even his life.  May our nation never turn back!

“We are only what we are in the dark; all the rest is reputation. What God looks at is what we are in the dark—the imaginations of our minds; the thoughts of our heart; the habits of our bodies; these are the things that mark us in God’s sight.”  —Oswald Chambers

1”I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”   —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.