Greenwich Village, 1958.
In Birmingham, where I grew up, white people don’t see you. Or if they do, it’s out of the corner of their eye, making sure they don’t brush against you when you’re on the same side of the street. Like they’re thinking black skin is catching and they don’t want to be caught.
We couldn’t eat in the same restaurants or go to the same schools or ride the bus except in the back. Reverend Shuttlesworth said we have to do something about it and started the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. In 1956 he spoke out on TV, saying unless the buses were desegregated in the next six days, members of the group would desegregate themselves.
The KKK bombed his house of course, but God kept him and his family whole. And the day after that we boarded the bus and refused to sit in the back, and they arrested us—none too gently, either. Waited hours and hours before we even got water; waited days to get out at all.
I was done, after that. I love and respect Reverend Shuttlesworth but I was done. I heard about the Beats, the Beat movement and I wanted to be with artists who cared about what instruments you played and how you played, not the color of your skin.
I borrowed money from my grandfather for a bus to D. C. – then hitched to New York and got down to the Village with the last money I had. And sitting in the park, I just pulled out my guitar and people started putting money in my case; and a few days later I met Les and we started playing together. Been playing ever since.
Meanwhile, Reverend kept on working. In 1957 he was part of the On February 14, 1957, he attended the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in New Orleans. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reverend Ralph Abernathy founded it and now they’re all working together. Some call the day they met Valentine’s Day, but I think of it as the day we all said, we’re Americans. And we’re not afraid to stand up for ourselves.
In March of that year, Reverend and his wife Ruby tried to desegregate the white-only waiting room of the Birmingham train station. Both the police and a mob outside left them alone, and Reverend had kind words for Public Safety Commissioner Robert Lindbergh. But in June Lindbergh lost the election to Bull Connor, and don’t you tell me he’s not KKK. If you say that, I’m telling you, you’re wrong.
Now I’m thinking I can’t stay here and watch what happens on TV. I’m going down to Birmingham, help the Reverend and my family and everyone working so hard to stand up for what’s right. Walk into a “whites only” restaurant in my best suit and sit down. Let ‘em drag me to jail, shoot a hose full of water at me. Because civil rights are everyone’s rights, not just white people’s. Les says he wants to go with me. But whether he goes or not, I’m going. Strong.
Robert “Bo” Atkins