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It’s eerie, on the bus. The hand of the man sitting next to me is near mine but I’m not paying attention. It’s too silent to focus, and so I lose myself in the whoosh of scenery out the window. Trepidation hangs over us like a gallows, and no one knows what will happen.
This is so unlike what we expected.
I remember when I first got in trouble for this. I was getting lunch and decided, just spur of the moment, to integrate lunch tables. My friends wouldn’t come with me, so I went alone.
I went to the dean’s office alone too.
And later, when I sat with those I was banned from eating with, I went to the jail alone. And again when I used their bathroom. And again when I sat on their benches.
I was really getting used to doing it all alone when I joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They asked me to ride with the some other students on an interstate bus. Traveling through Alabama and into Jackson, Mississippi, we’re challenging segregation by eating together, sitting together, being together. It’s strange how such a simple thing can get people so riled up. We’ve been yelled at, arrested, and threatened. But at least I’m not alone anymore.
Beside me sits a tall young man named Paul, whom I met five days ago. Wednesday. Looking back now, it feels like years. He’s riding for the same reason I am. And across the aisle sits my friend Susan, and in the front there’s William. We’re all together.
When Diane first painted this picture of us riding into the South, there was an air of joy and invincibility, as if simply being unified made us all unconquerable. That is gone now. I’m not sure when it left—probably sometime between us telling our parents we were dropping out of school and us signing our wills in case we never returned. That mood pervades all of our thoughts now. I’m certain my parents could never understand why I would die for this. They couldn’t even understand why I would quit school for it.
I remember how they called me “Profoundly insane”, and immediately hung up. It’s almost funny now. Before, I didn’t agree with them, but after being arrested in Birmingham, I’ve decided that they’re probably right. What kind of sane person would choose to be yelled at, beaten, or arrested, let alone all three at once?
I laugh softly at myself, then cough. The air in here is cloistering and thick, and fiercely contrasts the singing, joyful atmosphere of only a few days ago. As we journey deeper into the South, it becomes more and more apparent: this is no joy ride.
I close my eyes and try to imagine what awaits us in Mississippi. I’ve seen my share of segregation in Tennessee, but that’s nothing compared to the lynchings and beatings I hear about in the Deep South. My stomach is a pit of fluttering unrest.
But I chose to get on this bus, I remind myself, and now there's no getting off. At least not until we reach Jackson, and if the speculations are true, I’d just as soon stay on this bus than enter those mobs.
I look at the faces around me and for the first time realize that what I’m doing, what we’re doing, is affecting other people. Even hurting them. What about that woman in the front, who just wants to see her kids in Memphis? Or the gentleman in the back with a wedding band and wife waiting? They’ll both be affected by this.
I imagine the flames of a fire bomb shaking the bus, and their charred bodies pointing at me. It could happen again, just like it did with the first riders. Maybe we won’t get out in time like they did. Again I imagine. I see Jim Zwerg’s bloody slouch swim at me through a newspaper clipping. He points at me and frowns. What business does this girl have messing about with people’s lifestyles? This is how it’s always been, and here you are messing it up. Getting people hurt.
No. I push the thoughts away. What I’m doing is right. I think of Catherine’s brother, who got beaten simply for going in the wrong bathroom. Treated like a roach who has to use the back door and keep out of sight because he’s less than human.
That's wrong. I know it by how my gut clenches, how my mouth curls, how every part of me roils in sickness at the thought.
But as I'm sitting here on this bus with nothing but a few miles separating me from the angry white mobs of the next bus stop, I wonder. What makes me right? My eyes focus for the first time in miles. Outside, the windows show flashing greens and browns. I distinguish a farm that just a generation ago must’ve had negroes working on it. Living and dying and working themselves into the ground for nothing. They weren’t compensated with pay, or appreciation, or a life of their own. They must’ve died hoping that their children wouldn’t have to go through that. What do I hope happens after I die?
There is the ever haunting chance that none of us will come out of this alive. I know that; I signed off on that the day I called my parents and wrote my will. But the thought still makes me tremble, and my hand goes to my left, where Paul moves to catch it. He puts his hand on mine, his deep chocolate skin making my white seem weak and unhealthy in its paleness. His eyes catch mine without smiling. One nod, and I know what he's saying.
We're all in this together. I move my white hand, adjust my curled brown hair, and nod back.