Monday, January 17, 2011

Daybreak in Alabama and the Whole Country

"When I get to be a composer
I'm gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I'm gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I'm gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy color faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black
white black people
And I'm gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth
hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In  Alabama."
   --Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems

(Several years ago I wrote this piece for The Birmingham (AL) News editorial page on the week-end of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Even though this article is directed toward Alabama I thought it might say something to other folk in other states. This strange talk by the birthers and the bitterness that President Obama’s election has unearthed—says to me that we still have a long way to go.)

As a life-long Southerner, my first experience in race relations came late. I was sixteen years old and living in Columbus, Georgia. Our family did not have a car, so I rode the city bus practically everywhere I went.

On one of those bus trips downtown, the bus stopped and a black woman got on. She moved toward the back and found a seat. A few stops later a man got on and also moved toward the back of the bus. All the seats were taken and there was no place for him to sit down. He glared at the black woman sitting behind me. He kept staring while she looked at her hands in her lap. "Nigger," he said, "I need to sit down." She didn't move. Using that same ugly word a second time, he said, "Why don't you get back there where you belong--I want to sit down." The bus got very quiet. No one said a word. But something I had not felt before boiled up inside me. As a shy sixteen year old I could take it no longer. "Mister," I said, "if you would talk to her like a human being, she might get up and move." He turned his rage toward me. "Nigger lover," he spat out. Everybody turned and looked at me. The bus driver said, "Enough of that." The bus moved on toward town.

The woman got up, moved out of the man's way and he plopped down in her seat. She stood up, holding on to the bus strap until the next stop. The woman got off the bus. As the bus pulled away I looked out the bus window and saw her standing there with her head down, looking sad.

That day was the beginning of a long journey in understanding something of injustice. I had taken the black and white drinking fountains for granted. I had never wondered why all my classmates and teachers were all white. I never asked why only Caucasian folk attended my church or lived in my neighborhood. I did not know there were no African-American bus drivers or policeman or store clerks. Neither did I know that black soldiers at Fort Benning were kept in separate barracks and could not mix with the white soldiers. Later I would learn that blacks and whites were paid different salaries for the same work and that people of color far outweigh white folk in our prisons and on death row.

The old racist that day on the bus taught me a powerful lesson. For the first time in my life I had bumped into inequity and unfairness on a personal level. I knew something was terribly wrong that day on the bus though I could not easily put it into words.

We have come a long way since my bus ride that day in the early fifties. The progress that we have made racially has been enormous. We could not have made it without the great King and those thousands and thousands of foot soldiers that put their very lives on the line. The Birmingham community is filled with hundreds of those mostly nameless heroes.

Despite our progress we still have a long way to go. We have a bloated state Constitution that is filled with inequity and disparity on every page. Sunday may still be the most segregated hour of the week. For all of our diversity talk, we see little evidence of its influence in many segments of our daily lives. There are counties in this state whose mortality rate of infants is as low as many third-world countries. We still have not discovered a way to give a quality education to most of our children. The state of Alabama still ranks near the bottom of too many state lists.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday let us remember the way we were in the fifties. Let us never forget the dark pages of our history. Let us celebrate the enormous progress that we have made. But let us recommit ourselves to Langston Hughes’ vision called "daybreak in Alabama." It is an old and a good dream. A state and a nation where all find a place at the table and what every single citizen finds on that table is good indeed.

(If you drive to Five Points in downtown  Birmingham you will find this statue. Surrounded by bars, restaurants, homeless people and churches in the center of it all you will find a man kneeling in prayer. A Presbyterian minister in Birmingham, he was known throughout the city for his love for Birmingham. He gave away almost everything he had--he never let those in need go lacking. And so, after his death the city of Birmingham erected this moving statue of Brother Bryan praying for Birmingham.)


  1. The first summer job in a church I ever had was in a rural "tobacco town" in South Carolina. It was in the mid 60's. Every night at 9:00 a whistle would blow all over town. About the second or third night it blew I asked the family I was living with what it was. Jimmy, the man of the house, and a deacon down at the church where I was summer youth director told me it was to get the "niggers" off the street. I'd grown up with a sort of instituionalized racism that seemed normal, and, like you, I'd never really come face to face with it until that night. It was like a blow to some emotional/spiritual solar plexus. I was never the same after that night. It's better now than it was---but only in some ways. Your piece above is so well-said as always. I only wish it weren't still as relevant now as it was when you wrote it. Thanks for putting it out again (and maybe again and again).
    Bob Shrum

  2. I'll never forget being confronted with my own racism. My first semester at Clemson I noticed a white friend in the dining hall eating with a Black guy. I commented to someone, "Doesn't he care what people are gonna think?"--or something like that. Fortunately, it wasn't long that the good influence of the BSU and First Baptist of Clemson began to rub off on me, and I changed. But I don't forget wondering about my friend not seeming to care what others might think of his table guest. Jeff was his name...and he was Jewish. And I remember another Jewish guy who wasn't afraid of his table guests...
    Good word, as usual...Randy