When we went back a few days later to sit in the House gallery, a new bill was up for discussion: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From watching the evening news and being taught to read the daily newspaper, I knew that “colored people” were being unfairly treated, even killed. A few months earlier, in March 1965, a white housewife from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, upset at what she had been seeing on the television regarding the savage treatment of black people, made an impromptu decision to head down to Selma, Alabama, to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King. I knew King to be the Negro man in charge of the civil rights movement, and in the town where I lived his name was rarely mentioned — and when it was, it usually had other words attached to it, none pleasant.
Mrs. Liuzzo, a mother of five children, was brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while volunteering as one of the drivers who ferried demonstrators back and forth to Selma. It was a shock to most of Michigan, and when I heard it being discussed by Jesse the barber, he informed those who were getting their hair cut that day that she was found with “some nigga boy” in the car — a married woman up to no good and “sticking her puss in where it don’t belong!” Jesse’s Barber Shop was the place you went for enlightenment in Davison, and the place was always full. Jesse was a short man with a short haircut, and there was always a pair of scissors or a long razor in his hand. This was problematic, as he wore thick-lensed glasses, the kind the legally blind wore, and it frightened me when I sat in his chair as he held court, the sharp instruments being used to make various punctuation points in the air.
For many nights after Mrs. Liuzzo’s murder I could not sleep, and when I did, I had dreams that it was my mother found dead in the car along the road in Alabama. I told my parents of this, and they suggested I give the news-watching a break, but I continued to tune in to Walter Cronkite each night.
It was confusing for me and my sisters, sitting in the House gallery, listening to men talking about how “it isn’t the federal government’s business” who gets to vote.
“Why don’t they want people to vote?” I asked my mother.
“Some people don’t want some people to vote,” she said, trying to protect me from the fact that even United States senators could think like the men who killed Viola Liuzzo.
The next day we took an overly long and punishingly hot car ride to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. This historic site, located about two hours southwest of Washington, deep in the state of Virginia, took us into the beginnings of the “real South,” as our mother called it. The tour through Monticello was mostly unmemorable, except for the too-short doorways that indicated people two hundred years ago were not that tall, and the glaring omission of any mention of Jefferson’s slaves.
On the way back to D.C. we pulled off the highway for gas and for a trip to the rest room. I walked with my mother around to the back of the station, where there were two doors. One was marked WHITE and the other COLORED (though it looked like someone had tried to scrape that last word off, unsuccessfully). I stood and stared at these signs, and although I knew what it meant, I wanted to hear my mother’s explanation of it.
“What is this?” I asked.
She looked at the signs and was silent for a moment.
“You know what it is,” she said curtly. “Just go in there and do your business and get out.” I went into the “Colored” bathroom and she went into the “Whites.” When we came out, she led me back to the car.
“Get in there and stay with your sisters.”
She then headed into the gas station with the kind of walk we three kids knew meant that heads would roll. We cranked our heads out the windows, hoping to hear what she was saying to the man at the counter, but all that was available to us was the tight-lipped look on her face and the few motions she made with her index finger. He, too, made a few gestures, including a shrug of his shoulders. She came back outside to the car and got in and said nothing.
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“Just mind your business,” she said, cutting me off. “And lock your doors.” (This would be the only time in my life I would hear such a demand when in the vicinity of all white people.) We never learned what she said to the man, or what he told her, and years later I liked to think she had given him a piece of her mind for her children having to witness such immorality in the U.S.A. that she loved. He might have told her that they just hadn’t gotten around to taking it down yet, or had tried (the Civil Rights Act outlawing such things had passed twelve months earlier), or maybe he told her to get her nigger-loving ass out of there. Or maybe she was just complaining that the ladies’ room was out of toilet paper. I always meant to ask but didn’t. She was no Viola Liuzzo, and for that, I guess, I was thankful, as I liked my mother being alive.
April 22nd, 2014
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