Saturday, October 23, 2010

Water Fountains

It was a very hot day in Montgomery, Alabama.  I was five years old, and I knew how to read and name and some words if they weren't really big.  My momma and I were out shopping for school clothes.  I was going to real school in September just like the big kids, and I was going to have a brand new dress to wear on the first day.

Momma was taking a long, long, long time to pick out the dress, and I was getting tired and thirsty too.  Then I saw a drinking fountain.  No, two drinking fountains.  They had words on the top.  I could have asked Momma what they meant, but I was too big for that anymore--I could read them myself.   One said wa....haa... tttt.  I couldn't read that one.  The other word was even longer, but the beginning looked like a word I already knew.  Cool.  Cool...rrrr...ddd.   COOLRD.  That fountain water was coolered--that must mean it had cooler water than the other one did.   I had figured it out all by myself!  Momma was really busy looking at how the seams were made and if the plaids were matched up, so I just decided to go over there by myself, and get a drink of the special, cooler water.

The fountain was a little too high, but I didn't want Momma to help.  I could do it all by myself.  I tippitoed up,  turned the water on, and stretched my head out from my neck as far as it would go toward the water stream.   Suddenly, one of the sales ladies came up from behind.  "Oh, no, darlin', you don't drink out of that fountain.  You drink out of the other one.  Here, do you want me to lift you up?"  But it wasn't the words I remember as much as the look on her face.  I had somehow broken a rule, done something wrong.  I shook my head, and ran back to Momma.   One good thing about women's dress styles in the fifties is that a small child could hide herself in the voluminous skirts until she all but disappeared.  From my hiding place I could hear the lady explaining to Momma what had happened and my Momma apologizing.  Apologizing for what I had done.

After we left the store,without buying the dress, and had walked a safe distance away, I asked Momma, "Why couldn't I drink the cooler water?"

"You mean colored water?"

"No, Momma, that water didn't have any colors.  That water was cooler--the sign said so."

"No dear, the signs said WHITE and COLORED.  White people are supposed to drink out of the one marked WHITE and colored people are supposed to drink out of the one marked COLORED.  That's the way they do things down here.  I'm not saying it's right, but we need to follow their rules or we make people upset--like the lady in there."

"So which water is cooler?" I wanted to know.

"They're both the same; they come from the same place, sweetheart."

 "But why...?

She took me for ice cream, an unusual treat, probably trying to make up in some way for the loss of innocence that had happened to me that day, or perhaps simply to distract me from asking any more questions that she couldn't answer.

But I still think about it; not constantly, of course, just when I come up against a rule that doesn't make sense and gives me the same feeling that I had that day.  That's when I see the water fountain signs in my mind.

On Thursday we were divided into two groups:  Not white and colored this time, but blue and red.  Regular workers at our site have I.D. cards with a blue stripe.  Reassigned workers have I.D. cards with a red stripe.  Blues got to go in  without walking through a metal detector.  Reds and visitors had to line up to be scanned.

I had already exchanged words with Mr. Freedman, the Head of Security two hours earlier when I had been forced to show my drivers license, print my name, write my address (yeah, right) put a visitor's sticker on my clothes, and walk thorugh a scanner.

"I would like to request a copy of every sign-in sheet with my signature."  I said, with no attempt to conceal my outrage.

"You can't have a copy of the sign-in sheets," he said.  "They're confidential."

"I have a RIGHT to a copy of anything I SIGN," I countered.  "It's the LAW."

"Then you can go through the courts,"  He replied.

"Don't worry,  I will!"  I promised.

I went upstairs, seething, and wrote this letter to my United Federation of Teachers District Representative.

Then the fire alarm rang, and we had to go outside for a fire drill.  When we returned,  as I mentioned, we Red Badgers had to be scanned AGAIN.  Many were wearing their little VISITOR stickers from the morning, but they still had to submit to being carded and scanned for weapons a second time.  I didn't waste my time standing on line.  I waited until most of the Red Badgers had been reprocessed and then stood at the very back. 

"This is outrageous,"  I said to the security guards--almost all of whom were black.  This is like segregation in the South.  Front of the bus, back of the bus.  Different DRINKING FOUNTAINS." 

One security guard came up to me and said, "Do you have a problem,  Ma'am?" 

"Problem?  Of course not.  Why should I have a problem with SEGREGATION?"  I replied acidly.  He turned and walked away.

After I had signed in again, received a second visitor's sticker, and walked through the scanner, I turned and said to Freedman, the Head of Security.

"Have you ever fought for Civil Rights?  Do you know about the Civil Right Movement in this country?  I don't THINK so.  If you had, you would know what all this means!" 

Are you beginning to feel sorry for the poor security guards who were just doing their jobs?  Good.  Then feel free to feel sorry for the poor policemen in the south who enforced segregation.  Feel free to feel sorry for the poor german soldiers who made sure that the Jews got on the right trains.  Feel free to feel sorry for all the little people caught up in helping to perpetrate injustice so that they and their families can continue to sit in the front of the bus and drink out of the fountains marked WHITE.

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