All weekend I have been thinking about Martin Luther King’s birthday and the historic March on Washington. I am also reminiscing about where I was when he gave the “I have a dream speech”. Yes I am old enough to remember! At the time I was around 8 or 9 years old and visiting my grandparents’ home in Cooper Texas. Cooper is a mostly pleasant and small Northeast Texas town. It’s safe to say that it was not known for being all that racially open-minded in the 60s. In fact, I vividly remember the segregation around town, including schools, public places, the movie theatre and etc. So on the day of the famous march, I was in my grandparents’ den watching Dr King on TV when Zola, their black maid, walked in and paused a bit from her house cleaning duties. They called them ‘coloreds’ back then, and to my grandmother’s credit she would not allow anyone to ever use the “N Word”, even though I often heard it in other parts of Cooper. So Zola and I watched and listened to the speech together on an old black and white TV in the otherwise empty house. And Zola could not contain her excitement! She was shouting excitedly at Dr. King on the TV as he spoke so eloquently. You could see, hear and feel the joy she was experiencing. At last, someone was fighting for the coloreds! I will never forget those twenty minutes or so. At that age I was somewhat indifferent to all the excitement of the march, but I became totally caught up in her exuberance; her hope; and her sheer joy.
As a child I was certainly aware that the whites and blacks had radically different ‘places’ in American society. But as with so many children, I assumed this was the way the world was, and would likely always be. However, on that day I was so happy for Zola. It was as if someone had thrown her a surprise party!
I doubt that Zola ever really experienced the positive results of the Civil Rights movement in her life as domestic servant in that small Texas town. On subsequent trips to Cooper, I do recall noticing the slow crumbling of segregation. One bit of evidence to this improvement was the fact that the old Sparks movie theater finally allowed blacks in; as long as they sat on the far right side of the auditorium. My hope is that Zola’s children and grandchildren were eventually able to have the same opportunities as the whites in that community.
I think most would agree that since the 1960’s, racial opportunity and equality have vastly improved in Cooper, as with the rest of America. I believe that is exactly what she and I were cheering and hoping to one day see as we listened to Dr. King’s dream.