As Martin Luther King Day was celebrated, I read about college students participating in peaceful sit-in demonstrations and demanding service in Southern restaurants during the height of the civil rights era, enduring both humiliation and physical pain. When I look back to those times, I remember well our family's trip to the deep South in the mid-1960s.
It was Easter vacation, and my father's plan was to visit New Orleans. In the South, we were witness to things we never knew existed, including segregated facilities.
It became increasingly clear we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Mississippi, it got even worse. When we reached Laurel and Hattiesburg in our 1965 Oldsmobile with its blazing orange license plates and the suction cup Madonna on the dashboard, we had no idea what we were headed into. We first stopped at a local gas station, likely the only station in town. The station owner had a mean face, and there was ill feeling between him and his African-American employee who was pumping our gas. It was unbelievable tension, and something was very wrong.
When we got to the motel and went for supper at the motel restaurant, we observed that nobody was staying there but us. The only other diners in the restaurant were state troopers, lots of them. Nervously, I munched on some gulf shrimp, conscious we were being watched. Since we were the only "civilians," Dad asked the troopers what was going on. "J'es routine, sir, j'es routine," they replied.
After dinner, we returned to our room. A van pulled up in the parking space next to ours, to the right of our room. Eight men dressed in business suits got out. They silently filed into their room, its door ajar. I could see men standing in the doorway talking quietly. There were many men there, and they were all white. From our room, we could hear the murmur of their voices.
It was time for the evening national news, so we turned on the TV in our room. There was a report -- about Laurel and Hattiesburg! The FBI was in town arresting people, including the gas station owner we had seen earlier. They said people had died and were buried somewhere. My parents had had misgivings in the restaurant, but now were really frightened. Unable to sleep, they "stood guard" over their family. At the very least, they thought harm could come to their brand new "Northern" auto with its New York plates and its Madonna so emblematic of Catholicism. The men in suits were there all night. Mostly everyone at the motel, state troopers included, did not sleep.
The next morning, my parents were thankful no harm came to us. We left early. There was a roadblock at the entrance to the bridge at Lake Pontchartrain, leading to New Orleans. The answer to my Dad's question? "J'es routine."
Before we left New Orleans, we had to go to the Laundromat. The front window sign read "white only," as did the signs in most buildings. We met a woman who engaged us in cheerful conversation. How could she act like everything was normal?
Our family returned from our trip unharmed, at least physically. We never forgot our road trip, though. It gave us insight into the struggles of the Rev. King and his followers. We have so much for which to be thankful.