Thursday, August 21, 2014

Teatime Rituals and Outdoor Entertaining

Teatime and evening meals outdoors make a poor family feel rich.

Texas Tea Map
Texas Tea Map

In the 1950s, when I was young , my mother and I sipped tea with lemon on Saturday afternoons under the shade of our mulberry tree. 

We enjoyed lounging on reclaimed, painted-to-match lawn furniture in our little garden like we were English royalty. When neighbors passed and they had time to spare, she invited them for a cup of tea and a cookie. "A cup of tea, a cookie and a smile cost pennies and make a person feel special," she said. It seemed natural for her to transform something or someone without offending or belittling. 

Drinking tea made her feel better and look younger, Littie said. 

Teabag & Cucumber Eye Compress
Teabag & Cucumber 
Eye Compress

"Just because you don't have a lot of money," she said, "doesn't mean you don't deserve to feel good or look good." 

My mother learned many of her teatime practices from a family in our neighborhood whose ancestors had been Chinese immigrants. By the time I knew these people, they were as African American as the rest of us, having been totally immersed within the African American community through marriage. 

However, the forefathers of these Chinese immigrants had told by them the story of their heritage and warned them to preserve what they had been told, lest their historical accounts be lost and forgotten. Chinese contributions were more than teatime. The American West, a historic, glorified and mythologized region of the United States, hardly acknowledges significant presence or recognizes how and why Chinese immigrants arrived, nor documents their diaspora traveling to other regions of the nation such as the Mississippi Delta, making the Chinese American West a story of its own.

After tea, my mother wrapped used teabags in plastic wrap and kept them in the refrigerator. Later, she used them for under-the-eye compresses. "Teabags to get rid of eye bags," she said. We didn't waist anything, even a used teabag. 

My mother reserved her more expensive imported Chinese Japanese teas, which she ordered from catalogs, for occasions when it was just the two of us. 

Don't Toss That Teabag!
They're not Trash!
At the time I was still a child and didn't have under-eye bags and, following my mother's instructions to the tea, I still don't. To this day, I press green tea- or black teabags under my eyes for an afternoon refresher before tossing the tea bags into the trash. My mother was right about tea helping to restore health, being an inducement to meditation and getting rid of bags under the eyes. 

Natural Ways To Get Rid of Bags Under the Eyes

Get Rid of Bags Under the Eyes, Iced Cucumber Slices
Iced Cucumber Slices
Get Rid of Bags 
Under Your Eyes
"Women have been figuring out how to look good with and without no money for centuries," she said. "The older ladies made their own beauty creams before face creams with skin lightening and tightening concoctions came on the market and the old fashioned homemade wrinkle remedies work better than the store bought ones."

Cucumber gel from real cucumbers was one of her specialties. She mixed the cucumber gel with brewed green tea and stored it in glass jars in the refrigerator. Another ritual of outdoor entertainment was bringing out a bowl of very thinly sliced cucumbers in ice. On a hot summer day, it was particularly refreshing to place slices over our eyes as we relaxed and talked. 

Red bird in a tree
On occasion at teatime, my mother brought
art supplies out and painted birds in the tree 
In the backyard relaxing under the mulberry tree sipping tea, we talked about the teatime rituals in a book she bought on how the ancient Chinese and Japanese ceremonies and tea customs that deepened one's understanding of everything. 

My mother was not only very smart, she was practical in her approach to raising me during the Jim Crow era. She knew Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were out there trying to change things, but she also knew those changes were not going to come immediately. There were so many places African Americans couldn't go and so many things we couldn't do at that time in history, my mother's only recourse was through books and her own imagination. Therefore, she had to devise a method of cultivating me on her own if she wanted to expose me to other cultures. So, under her elegant touch, she turned the simplest occasions, like teatime or eating ice cream, into momentous events. 

Making tea was as important to my mother as taking tea. 

Making Tea 

Photography by Mac Jamieson

Making tea is a serendipitous event. There is no manual that guarantees perfect tea if you follow five easy steps. Read 10 books by tea experts and you will find 10 different procedures and brewing times. The only constant more

Green Tea Flavored Kakigōri 

Although teatime was a ritual my mother honored, she also loved ice cream and often combined the two by making Japanese green-tea-flavored ice cream.

Cool, minty-green tea snow cones were one of my favorites. My mother had no recipe for this treat; she substituted the summertime snow cone man's method--sugar laden, artificially colored, loose street gravel topping--for her own ingredients--crushed ice, Karo Syrup, condensed milk and powdered green tea. 

My mother loved entertaining our neighbors with her inventions. I could write books on my mother's second-hand fix-ups or giving poor relatives and neighbors their first experience with an elegantly set table with fine mostly mix-matched China plates and crystal glasses, proper use of silverware, dinner conversation and indoor plumbing. 

Black Cowboys of Texas 

Littie talked about Saturday Night Suppers at Uncle Tinney's house when she was a young girl living on an isolated Texas farm. 

Uncle Tinney, only one of the black cowboys in our family. There were black cowboys and Indian blood in every family I knew. You could see it in the hair, cheekbones and dark red coloration in the skin. 

Uncle Tinney was married to my grandmother's sister, part Comanche through their father, my great grandfather, who knew about the old way and taught it to his offspring and in-laws of offspring. That could be the way Uncle Tinney learned some of his outdoor cooking techniques.

My mother said, "Uncle Tinny dug in the ground behind the house and lit a slow fire in the hole. Then he placed a whole pig or most of a pig wrapped in corn shucks in the hole and smoked the pig all day Friday. On Saturday just before the supper, he took out the tender meat, falling off the bone. With fresh white bread his wife baked in their outdoor oven, Uncle Tinny made sandwiches to sell at the supper. Everybody from miles around--black, white and brown--came to eat, drink Uncle Tinney's home-brewed beer, listen to Cousin Roy play is guitar and sing out of tune, and kick up dust dancing in the side yard.

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Ojibwa Woman Cooking, An Ethnographic Biography of Paul Peter Buffalo
Ojibwa Woman Cooking
An Ethnographic Biography 
of Paul Peter Buffalo
"My father taught all of us children how to hunt, clean and cook wild meat outdoors," my grandmother said. "That's the old way, the only way when he was a boy. Our people were starving. Wild meat and small game were how we survived because there was no money or store to buy meat. 'And why should you buy meat?' Bigmama's father would ask, 'when you can go out the back door and bag a rabbit or a squirrel, skin it and cook it over an open fire for supper.' So that is what we did," Bigmama said.

Much changed during the period between my grandmother's childhood and mine. When I was a little girl, my mother had a job, not making much money, but some. She said it didn't take a lot of money to transport us to someplace magical. "Everybody needs to have a magical place," she'd say. "All it takes were a few simple things, a little imagination and a nice cup of tea to start things off."

Before Outdoor Lighting, All-weather Lawn Furniture or Air Conditioning

outdoor lights hanging in trees similar to my mother's
Similar to my mother's outdoor lighting

Littie made a makeshift table from a rough wooden door under the mulberry tree in our little garden, and strung white holiday lights on low hanging branches. Our house had no outdoor lighting fixtures, except for a corner street lamp that came on at dusk and went off at dawn, about the time Mr. Hines's roosters began calling for morning into light.

She would decorate that table like it was in a palace or somewhere and you simply forgot you were in the low-end part of town that still had unpaved streets. Nothing matched, but she didn't care. Nothing had to match to make it elegant.

Portable Suitcase
Record Player

To complete outdoor entertaining, Littie brought out a record player she had bought at a yard sale. 

This old fashioned portable suitcase music machine was our third second-hand record player. Our first portable suitcase music machine only played large thick plastic 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) disks. Our second record player had two speed--78 rpm and 45 rpm for playing the smaller disk with the big hole in the middle. This suitcase music machine was deluxe as far as we were concerned because it had three speeds--78, 45 and 33 rpm. The 33 rpm was the latest. It played LPs (long playing), albums as they were called, the largest disks. 

My mother needed this new 33 rpm format to play her new LPs, albums as they were called. She connected the machine to power in the kitchen and brought the machine to the back door in the evening to lilt music of her favorite jazz artists, like Kenny Burrell or The Dave Brubeck Quartet. As soon as the studio released the music in 1959, she bought Dave Brubeck's album, Time Outjust to get the hit single, Take Five.

Similar to my mother's outdoor table setting
With music in the background, Littie went about covering the old door with a crisp bed sheet substituting for a  white linen tablecloth and laying out the goodies. Neighbors--often invited to our backyard gatherings--were required to bring their own chairs and sometimes they brought a little something to offer at the meal. 

"You can't throw an outdoor supper and let your friends stare from their yards," Littie said. "If you don't have something to offer them, keep your supper inside, no matter how hot it gets in there!"

My mother shared without expectations that our neighbors would reciprocate, not because they had less than we had. Some of them had as much or more. But most people don't know how to make a party out of next to nothing like my mother did. Few people I have ever known were as organized in planning anything as my mother. And no one I have ever known has been as sharing as my mother. I learned a lot from her but I wish I had learned more about generosity and grace. People just don't think like my mother, even me. 

Climbing Red Roses
Climbing Rose Garden
Many neighbors thought we were rich, but we were poor, too. My mother made up the difference by conducting our lives with style. Because of her, we were rich and we lived elegantly, complete with fresh floral arrangements cut from Littie's flower garden. At the front of the house on each side of the steps leading up to the porch, there were Easter Lilies; on either side of the porch, there were red roses climbing on the porch supports and banisters, white and yellow roses down below in the beds, and other colorful flowers and fruit trees blooming around the yard every spring and summer. 

Learn Outdoor Table Arranging
Learn Outdoor Table Arranging
never wondered, when I was a child, how my mother provided--no invented--so much with so little. I just took it all for granted. She knew how and, without making a big fuss, gave me a great life. I remember outdoor entertainment at Littie's looking something like this outdoor setting. 

My mother got so good at outdoor entertaining, grilling and creating recipes she could have written a book. Instead, she went to college and studied nutrition. 

When summer comes, hot sweet evening air stirs memories of Littie's outdoor entertaining suppers. As much as I miss her, I never want those memories to fade and as long as there is summer, they never will.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rosa Parks, Montgomery Bus Boycott & Freedom Riders

Jim Crow said, "No!" Well, the movement said, "Yes!"

Colored Waiting Room Sign
Jim Crow  Waiting Room
Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Diane Nash were among civil rights activists who successfully led to the end of oppressive Jim Crow practices on America's public transportation systems through the Montgomery Bus Boycott in city bus transportation and the Freedom Riders on America's highways.

Forget about riding together! 

Under Jim Crow domination, black and nonwhite babies couldn't enter the world via segregated hospitals. Black and nonwhite customers couldn't try on clothing in segregated department stores. And dead black and nonwhite bodies were laid to rest different cemeteries.  

Discrimination and racial oppression was not always about color, but about difference and misunderstanding. 

Rights as basic as driving on certain highways, using restrooms while traveling, eating during a trip, sleeping at hotels and rest stops at roadside parks or seeking medical attention if involved in an accident were denied races of color and some races of different religion, language and culture, regardless of color, depending on the attitude of the community through which they were traveling. These were the signs of the times.

No Latinos

No Mexicans Allowed
No Mexicans

No Mexicans Allowed
No Mexicans

No Jews Allowed
No Jews

No Indians Allowed
No Indians

No Chinese Allowed
No Chinese

No Irish Allowed
No Irish

No Filipinos Allowed
No Filipinos

No Japanese Allowed
No Japanese

Colored Entrance Sign

There were highways that prohibited African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans from use. Although, these prohibition was not official law, the prohibition was enforced by renegade officers of the law and other groups dedicated to humiliating and subjugating people of color; and bring on them all forms of disrespect and denial of their rights as citizens of the United States of America.

This is not ancient history as many may wish to believe. The denial of human rights, taking place even to this day, is a carryover from the old Jim Crow laws that had their origin during past centuries. Traditions die hard and, with the help of insensitive people, some find a way of mutating into less obvious offenses. But before we jump to today, let examine our topic as it affected thousands throughout the 1960s.

In the case of Jim Crow city bus services, the driver decided who sat down and who stood, and where customers entered or existed the bus. That constituted Jim Crow laws, exactly the same laws that regulated other pseudo public facilities like restrooms, where people in charge of the place made the decisions as to whom would be allowed to use the service, the entrance they would be allowed to enter and leave and whether or not and how their waiting room and restroom needs would be accommodated.

Decisions on access to facilities, accommodations and services were based on race, skin color or ethnicity, as Jim Crow laws applied . People of most ethnic groups--African American, Asian, Hispanic, Mediterranean, Jewish, Native American and others, many with white skin--could not pass the subjective racial test of Jim Crow law sympathizers. Colored was the category reserved for those who were of a dark-skinned, other non-white ethnicity, foreign undesirable groups, and people known to have at least one drop of African blood.

Jim Crow laws established separate but equal in (Plessy v Ferguson 1896). Businesses were obligated to provide facilities for all races and ethnic groups. Although Plessy was intended to prohibit black rights, the law also was applied to other people who did not fit the definition of white, and businesses serving whites only were not obligated to provide restrooms for patrons they considered to be non-white.

Although U.S. airline travel was not officially segregated, the price of tickets kept most poor people off of airplanes. However, African Americans who could afford to fly were often bumped from their flights by the airlines in favor of a white passenger who needed the same schedule. African American airline passengers also were moved to undesirable seats if a white passenger either wanted the seat or refused to sit beside a black passenger. Because there was an internationally famous entertainer in the music and movie business in my family, I heard stories about his travel difficulties. Rather than tolerate irregular treatment on his concert tours, he hired private airplanes for himself, his band, cast and staff. 

Black and colored female domestic workers were segregated by race and subject to unwanted sexual advances in homes of their employers. Economic intimidation was used to discourage these female workers from complaining, and if they did protest, their men, children, churches and communities were terrorized or burned in retaliation. 

I was only six years old when I began to understand that Rosa Parks, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rest of them were doing something important for us, something they were giving their full concentration, a thought process shared by my mother and Rosa Parks, and others involved in important work, as well as ordinary daily tasks. "If you think enough of a thing to do it," I can hear my mother's voice echoing in my head as I write. "Then you should do it as well as you can or leave it to someone willing to give it their full attention."

"There is amazing power in unity," Martin Luther King said of the Montgomery Bus Boycott."

Rosa Parks: A Life
by Douglas Brinkley

Freedom Walkers:  The Story of the Montgomery  Bus Boycott
Holt McDougal Library:
 Freedom Walkers:
 The Story of the 
Montgomery Bus Boycott 
Grades 6-8
Greyhound Bus a few times on out-of-town trips with my mother and I didn't like the noise or fumes. But for the Freedom Walkers, as the Montgomery protesters became known, the reason for staying off of city buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott was much more significant than my childish notion of not liking to ride buses.

Freedom Walkers were those who refused to ride Alabama buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman, the School Library Journal credits Freedman with excellent prose, a rich selection of photographs, extensive chapter notes and a large annotated bibliography. Many of the photographs in this book are the boycott images I remember from magazines of the time, particularly Life Magazine.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement to equalize local transportation in American cities, helped to dismantle Jim Crow laws across the nation.

Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King Montgomery Bus Boycott Mugshot
Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King
Montgomery Bus Boycott Mugshot
By the time Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott to victory in 1956, more than a year after it started, I had learned to read. My mother subscribed to an array of national publications to keep up with world and national affairs. These publications stayed in the house for years neatly folded and stacked in boxes under her bed. I looked at pictures of activists in these newspapers and magazines and tried to read the articles. 

In 1954, the same year of Rosa Parks led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. I had been unable to read any part of the articles, not having yet entered first grade. However, one year later after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with my mother's assistance, I was picking my way through new articles about Rosa Parks and older coverage of BrownSince that time, I have read extensively from a scholarly perspective on the Civil Rights Movement and also examined resources available for young students.

Thurgood Marshall after Brown v the Board of Education Students on Steps of the U.S. Supreme Court
Thurgood Marshall after Brown v the Board of Education
Students on Steps of the U.S. Supreme Court 1954
My mother and father were very interested in the Brown decision because of its impact on my education--where, and under what circumstances, I would attend school when I started first grade. The issues of integration and school attendance were so pertinent in every community--black and white--that sides were being drawn for fear of harm coming to the children--black and white.

Racial lines were already being drawn in places where some members of our family lived in nearby towns. When my cousin died in Iola, Texas, a small town about 30 miles away, just one month after the Brown ruling, her school was closed when the town's political officials and school leaders invoked a statute to close its school for colored due to its small number of black students. For the next ten years, my cousins were forced to drive themselves to schools that would take them as far away as 30 miles away in beat-up old cars their father kept running with his mechanical skills. Again, transportation played a crucial part in Jim Crow laws.

Freedom Riders Burning Bus 1963
Freedom Riders:
 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Nine years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders replaced Freedom Walkers that grew out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and further bolstered the Brown decision with a continuation of demonstrations against all Jim Crow.

Both Freedom Riders and Freedom Walkers used buses as their protest vehicle against Jim Crow discrimination across the Deep South. The difference was, the Freedom Walkers stayed off all city buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in protest of Jim Crow laws that enforced discriminatory seating and service; and the Freedom Riders stayed on buses to protest Jim Crow laws that enforced discriminatory seating and service.
Diane Nash (center) Leads Demonstration
Against Jim Crow Laws
Nashville, Tennessee 1962
A fearless young college student from Nashville, Tennessee, Diane Nash, locked horns with the office of Robert F. Kennedy, who was U.S. Attorney General, in 1963, when she refused to call off the Freedom Riders protest on Greyhound and Trailways buses through the southern United States. In a conversation with an official, Nash pledged to train more black and white freedom riders, also college students like herself, as needed in the protest to replace those who were arrested, jailed, imprisoned, hospitalized and killed. 

The Freedom Riders boarded buses to challenge southern Jim Crow laws governing interstate transportation on interstate buses. By riding on Greyhound and Trailways buses through the Deep South, Freedom Riders protested Jim Crow laws that prevented African Americans from sitting in certain bus seats, waiting in certain areas of the station, and eating in bus station dining rooms.

for the next ten years, my younger cousins commuted to black schools in and around their county and graduated until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the younger ones were officially invited to attend the white school in their town, where they graduated and all went on to attend and graduate from college.

Lyndon Johnson Signs Civil Rights Act of 1964

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Fiftieth Anniversary

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 one-half Century ago, an African American baby born that year would become the country's first black president.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Others Witness  President Lyndon Johnson Sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Others Witness
President Lyndon Johnson
Sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ten years after Rosa Parks started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, administered by Martin Luther King; and ten years after the U.S. Supreme struck down public segregation in Brown v the Board of Education. 

Then why are we still talking about civil rights, voting rights and equality?

Because these issues still affect American life, making them topics that are still as relevant to American conversation as they were when the civil rights case, named after Linda Brown, a little girl about my age, in 1954, helped to win for African Americans the most sweeping changes in U.S. society since the Civil War. Brown v the Board of Education was decided in May 1954. I was five years old and my mother wondered where I would go to school that next year. Well, she didn't have to wonder long. I went to the same segregated school my older cousins had attended. That Brown decision and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Rosa Parks, made a great deal of difference on the law books, but made no significant difference at the personal level of my life. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 sounded great on paper, but how would it translate on the streets where I lived?

After Reconstruction, former slaves had been promised civil rights, the vote and other weapons against the old Slave Code system, which affected slaves, free African Americans and others with too much color, kink, culture divergence, religious difference and language difficulty. Reconstruction Amendments gave rise to another system: Jim Crow laws, perpetuated by organized racist terrorist groups that infiltrated all levels of U.S. government. The vestiges of a society founded upon and soiled by racial violence and injustice that has led us to where we are today, in spite of the convoluted web of  legal struggles this nation has endured. 

My mother always said, "You don't have to love me to be my neighbor, but you do have to give me the respect I have earned." 

Has the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed one year after Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream Speechaccomplished what was intended? If so, why are so many U.S. citizens isolated in segregated pockets, trapped in virtual slavery in low paying jobs and no health care and sending their children to dangerous inferior places every morning in the name of education? U.S. cities burned to the bone in the 1960s, attributable to racial isolation, virtual slavery, low paying jobs, no health care, dangerous inferior schools, no hope--ignored by conservatives and misunderstood by liberals? I moved to Baltimore in 1971 and saw all the signs of riots not forgotten. Even Los Angeles, California, bears scars of violent unrest during the 1960s.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2, 1964, I would turn 15 years old in a couple of days and not without political opinions of my own. Although, afraid to be too hopeful about this new turn in American history, I waited along with my opinionated friends in Denver, where I was spending the summer with relatives. My mother sent me away every summer to someplace in the North of West to escape Jim Crow laws. "You have to know there is more to life than segregation," she said.

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Poverty and Social Class

Poor Appalachian white child
The Greatest Number of Poor People in the United States
Are Not People of Color

Consequently, we are still steeped in deep concentration over the same societal ills and prejudices against those who find themselves and their children being left without adequate food, housing, clothing, preparation for decent jobs and resources to arrive at those jobs. And these conditions have nothing to do with the original purpose of Jim Crow laws, setup after the Civil War to deprive former slaves of the rights they have won. These conditions are centered around poverty and social class.

homeless families live in hulled out trailers
Vehicle Living
There are homeless families living in broken-down cars and hulled out trailers, and sleeping in boxes under bridges right here in the U.S. Others are living from paycheck to paycheck waiting for a pink slip or an eviction for nonpayment of rent because the money was spend on baby food, milk or cold medicine. Certainly, this is not what Lyndon Johnson meant to happen when he declared war on poverty or what Martin Luther King hoped for in his I Have a Dream Speech.

homeless families live in hulled out trailers
Vehicle Living
The biggest differences I see are the ever increasing varying shades of poverty. Historically, people of all races have been left behind with poor or no education, prison records, low or no jobs, unsatisfactory shelter that can hardly be called housing far from potential employment and, some cities, no reliable public transportation. 

Substandard Housing

Crowded, Unsanitary & Without Utilities
Just the other day, I saw on my local news a story about substandard housing, a building that called itself an apartment complex that was being held together by single nails and plaster from a can. 

There were no working toilets, no fire alarms or fire escapes, no windows in bedrooms, no garbage pickup, no cars ownership and no grocery stores within walking distance. When discovered, the landlord was told to close the building and the tenants were given notice to leave. Now, they will be homeless. There are so many instances of substandard housing in the United States that they are difficult to track. From inner-cities across the nation to the hills of Appalachia to migrant farms scattered throughout the south and west. Some of the worse substandard housing is occupied by migrant farm workers and their families. These dwellings may as well be in poverty-stricken  third-world nations on the other side of the earth. But they are here at home in the land of more than plenty.

Income, class and social status have been complicating factors in race relations since the beginning of the nation. More associated with race in the past, income, class and social status create the widening gulf in American society today. The have-nots include more than people of color and always have. But today, as in the past, white have-nots have been pitted against people of color to prevent their coalition into a formidable voting block and to deflect attention from those at the top of the political food chain. 

It seems that optimism emerges from the ability to vote, get a job, buy a home, educate the kids and exercise their rights as citizens of the United States. Although there is much to be done in the area of equality, evidence can be seen in public opinion polls that attitudes have changed among nonwhites. "...the gap between whites' and nonwhites' views of where the country stands is wider than at any point in recent history, with nonwhites now almost twice as likely as whites to view the nation's situation positively," according to a recent Gallup poll on race, which indicates that nonwhite Americans are more optimistic about race relations than white Americans.  

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A little civil rights history may be in order here.

The Civil Rights Act was based on plans drawn up by President John F. Kennedy, who, on June 11, 1963, unveiled his civil rights plan in a nationally speech on the brand new medium that had helped him to get elected over the sweaty, nervous, un-photogenic Richard Nixon. My mother had insisted I watch the debate, which won over some of our Lincoln Republicans neighbors for Kennedy. My mother never turned anyone away when there was a national event. 

"There is no way I can vote for Nixon," said our neighbor, Sugar, who grew a vegetable garden that he shared with anyone who walked past his house. "He looks like a liar," Sugar said. "His whole face is wet and his eyes look like two sunken ant hills between my rows of collard greens." 

My mother said, "They're politicians; they're both liars; all politicians are liars. And Kennedy isn't that good looking." Bigmama said, "But Kennedy is a lot better looking than Nixon." The whole room laughed in agreement, even the kids, especially the girls. "Now everybody be quiet," my mother scolded. "You people are making me miss the debate."

John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech
John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech

We all watched the replay of the JFK speech on evening news--me, my mother, my father and my grandmother. Our tiny living room was also filled with neighbors who did not have televisions sitting in chairs and on the floor in front of the strange little tube projecting from a large wooden box in the corner. "What is that contraption, Bigmama had asked when my mother as she showed the delivery men 

Later, I remember being awed by his inauguration speech. He made me want to go out and do something for my country! And I was only 11 years old. He made me feel that things were going to change because he was now president. It didn't matter that my mother and some of the adults in my life had doubts about his sincerity. 

President John F. Kennedy
Vice President
Lyndon B. Johnson
"Kennedy is afraid of the South," Bigmama said. "That's why he picked Lyndon Johnson for his vice president. Johnson makes him look safe to the bigots down here. That's how he got elected--Johnson got him Texas."

"Everybody with any amount of sense is scared of the South," I heard Sugar tell Bigmama.

"Are you saying Johnson doesn't have any sense?" She asked. 

"Oh, hell no, Johnson's got sense and balls."

"Not in front of the children," Bigmama said. "But I agree."

John F. Kennedy's civil rights speech on June 11, 1963 was one month before my fourteenth birthday and just five months before his assassination. By the time Kennedy gave his civil rights speech, I recalled that most of my life had been spent up to that time waiting and hoping, like many of my ancestors had hoped, for a change in my condition and my future. 

Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a hero in our community.

Rosa Parks
Montgomery Bus Boycott
I remember hearing my mother and Bigmama talk about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott before I started school. I didn't know what the Montgomery Bus Boycott was. And all I know about Rosa Parks was that she was a seamstress like Aunt Lucille. And, like Aunt Lucille, Rosa Parks was so much more than just a seamstress and she and Martin Luther King went to jail fighting something called Jim Crow laws. When I was very young, Bigmama taught me what Jim Crow laws meant in my life. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Bigmama thought it was time I knew something about American society.When I was four or five years old, she spelled out on a piece of paper colored and white only and told me what that meant. 

President John F. Kennedy Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
Memories of President Kennedy's striking image spewing fancy words on national television outlining his plans were burned into the African American psyche and would last through several succeeding generations. Kennedy's plan outlined what became Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the guts of Johnson's law, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. 

According to some, Kennedy came late and reluctantly into the struggle for the cause of civil rights. However, JFK did come into the discussion in a very public way, not only with lofty speeches, but, with the urging of his attorney general brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, ordering federal troops to protect black demonstrators in the South. To me, although I was young, this meant a new beginning for my people. I watched the police dog and fire hose attacks on school children in Birmingham, Alabama, and I wondered what it would take to make things right in this nation. Maybe Kennedy can do something, I thought.

Train passengers read John F. Kennedy Assassinated Newspaper headlines
John F. Kennedy Assassinated
Then, the unthinkable happened, sending the African American Community into mourning as if JFK was a member of our own familyPresident Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, of all places, not 200 miles north of us. Student and teachers had been assembled in the school auditorium to watch this momentous news coverage of the President's visit to Texas, along with his Vice President Lyndon Johnson of Texas, escorted by Texas Governor, John Connally. We were so devastated by the death of President Kennedy and the news media, as well, that there was hardly any word about forgotten Governor Connally, who lay close to death for several days.

Martin Luther Kin, Robert Kennedy, Roy Wilkins
President Lyndon Johnson
As hopeless as the situation seemed as we watched non stop coverage of the investigation and then the funeral, it wasn't entirely hopeless. We Still had Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. They would not let everything be lost. Too many lives, black and white, had been lost already--the president's, the four little girls in Birmingham, the three college students in Mississippi and the countless others over a century of civil rights struggle.

There had been lots of speculation about Lyndon Johnson when JFK picked him as his VP. My mother was an observer of American History and current national and local politics through national newspapers, magazines, radio and television news and other TV programming. 

"It was political," she told me. "There are so many deals going on under the table that it would make your head spin and not only in politics, in everything, at my job at your school. You remember that. Most things are not the way they seem.  And that goes for people, too. Like it or not, Johnson is the president, now."

She was right about President Johnson. He was not at all what he seemed. And it wasn't what he said or his lack of mastery of the English language that proved out who he was. It was his deeds. He called in every favor he'd left behind in the Senate, where he had been leader for so many years. He threatened to use sensitive information on politicians he knew. He bullied others. And the played on the sympathy for the late President Kennedy. All of this to get that Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. Why, you may ask? He seemed to be on a mission to make things right. 

Civil Rights Act of 1964 

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Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn’t Shop 
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Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations.

Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

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Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America