When Rosa Parks defied long-standing local convention in 1955, I was a 10 year-old living a few miles from Helena in central Alabama, not far from Birmingham. The story was in all the papers and in most adult conversations that we kids overheard. They told jokes that I only partly understood, that part being that "colored people" (if they saw we were listening, "niggers" otherwise) were trying to do something bad to us whites. I wasn't sure what that was, but it made us a bit apprehensive. One especially cruel joke ended with a punch line about "stealing more chains than he could swim away with." The image gave me bad dreams, and I still remember it all these decades later.
A couple of times a month, my family would pile into our 1948 Ford and drive down to visit relatives further south toward Montgomery. A highlight of the drive was stopping at the Dairy Queen in Calera. My father would order our hamburgers at a window under the "Whites Only" sign. Very rarely, we would see a black man at the other window under the "Colored" sign.
The Dairy Queen had real drinking fountains, something we had never seen anywhere else. On the wall outside the building were two clean, gleaming white porcelain fountains, with a sign saying "Whites Only". On the same wall near the back corner, another fountain had a sign saying "Colored". Out of curiosity I looked closely at it on one trip. It was disgustingly filthy, and water barely dribbled out of the spout.
A black family lived in a ramshackle house at the edge of my all-white school yard at the western edge of town. Rock fights between the black kids and the older boys were almost a daily thing. My friend Richard McCoy was the only one in our 5th grade class who ever wondered aloud what the fighting was about. The rest of us went along with what we heard at home and from the older boys.
My sister and I rode a bus (one of two owned by the district) the ten miles to our tiny house in Acton. On the way home, we passed groups of black kids walking home from their school, quite a way outside of town, across the Cahaba River. Their school was a small frame building about the size of my two bedroom house. Our white school house was brick. I never saw a bus at the black school.
When the story broke about the forced integration of high schools in Little Rock, all the adults in my family were agitated. My calm, kind hearted uncles who never raised their voices at us cousins, became more angry than I had ever seen. One talked loudly about taking baseball bats down to our school if they ever tried that here.
These days, central Alabama is superficially integrated. But when I visit there (less and less often now) the resentment is still not far below the surface in some of the people. Some of my acquaintances have gladly invited black friends into their homes. Others still speak of "lazy blacks who won't work."
Perhaps it's significant that even the latter ones don't use the n word anymore. Still, I have no doubt that if not for pressure by the federal government and Democratic Party in the ten years from 1955 to 1965, the South would still have those "Whites Only" signs over the drinking fountains.