Tuesday, March 18, 2014 — I had the honor of spending some time recently with a man born and raised in Montgomery, Ala., during the escalation of the civil rights movement in the South.
Charlie Hardy, who is now 73, grew up in an era when “every facet of life was segregated.” From schools to drinking fountains to restaurants, segregation was a fact of everyday life.
This remained true, especially down south, even after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. That unanimous decision stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” paving the way for desegregation in all aspects of life.
During his speaking tour through Quincy, Hardy related his first-hand experiences of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began Dec. 5, 1955.
The bus boycott occurred after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Hardy described the 381-day boycott that finally ended when the Supreme Court upheld an Alabama lower court decision ruling that segregation on buses was a violation of the Constitution.
Hardy said the ’50s and ’60s were a remarkable time, even though “when you live in a period of greatness, you don’t know it at the time.”
Students sitting in classrooms today have the advantages of battles fought and won by earlier generations, Hardy told a class at Feather River College.
“It’s not over — you have a role to play. This is a great time to live a life of significance.”
The same year Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in rural Mississippi rocked the mainstream media.
Till, from Chicago, was visiting relatives when he reportedly told a white woman, “Bye, baby,” as he left a store.
His actions were relayed to family and friends of the woman, and Till was kidnapped, brutally beaten, mutilated, shot in the head and submerged in the Tallahatchie River, where his body was found a few days after he was abducted.
The echoes of the subsequent trial, which ended in acquittal for the accused killers, reverberated across the country.
Such acts of terrorism, routinely conducted by the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to uphold white supremacy, shined the light on the rampant prejudice and discrimination of the southern judicial system.
The trial that freed the killers of Till, which his mother Mamie called a farce, provided a spark that propelled the civil rights movement into an unstoppable force.
That force would slowly but relentlessly turn the wheels of justice and ultimately lead to the Vietnam War protests, and the women’s and gay rights movements.
Education is an important tool capable of burning away the shrouds of indoctrinated ignorance and prejudice, unveiling the virtues of truth and justice.
Let’s live up to our moniker of “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.” Next time you feel that twinge of intolerance threatening to make your gorge rise, stop a moment to reconsider. In doing so, you may just realize the power of love and freedom, and the destruction that hate and prejudice wreak.
If you hear somebody utter disparaging or hateful words based on ignorance and prejudice, speak up, stand up, do the right thing.
Hardy said throughout our lifetimes, preparation and opportunity are like parallel lines. In order to succeed, there has to be an intersection between the two.
That intersection, or crossroads, can appear at any time. So instead of walking down the same old familiar path, try taking the road less traveled. Invite new experiences into your life and new pathways for your feet and synapses to follow.
Chances are, you’ll feel better in the end — and so will the people around you.