To the editor:
The first time I remember going to a demonstration was in 1958. My parents and many others in Mount Vernon wanted to combine the two high schools into one. There was a south side high school, which was predominantly people of color, and the north side high school, which was 99 percent white.
My two older sisters and I participated in a boycott of our elementary school, and went to what was called a “freedom school” in a church on the south side of the railroad tracks in Mount Vernon. I saw my second-grade friends walking to school in our north side neighborhood, as I left my house.
It was my first time in a church, and I was struck by how dark it was inside compared to the warm sunny June morning. We sang songs, created colorful signs on oak tag, and read stories as we sat in a large circle in the basement of the church. The parents met in the main sanctuary. At noon, we ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then stood with our signs on Fourth Avenue by Woolworths, near the Beehive Restaurant.
When the demonstration was over, we walked back home. I decided to show off my sign to my friends as they got out of school at 3:10. As I approached the street corner of the school, the crossing guard saw me and asked to see my sign.
“Take that sign and go home!” she yelled.
My eyes widened and I stood motionless. My sign read: “Integrate our schools. Create one high school.” My older sister had written the words, and I drew the smiling faces of the new friends I met in the church.
I didn’t know what to say to the crossing guard. I was only 7 years old, and I hadn’t realized she wouldn’t like my sign.
It’s been more than 60 years since that June day. I have been to hundreds of demonstrations. In 1961, I went with my mother to a Women’s Strike for Peace march. When I was in high school, I went to “ban the bomb” gatherings. One time police on horseback charged at my friends and me when we were holding signs demanding an end to the war in Vietnam in 1970 after students at Kent State were killed by the National Guard.
A few times I was heckled as I marched in gay pride marches in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (before they turned into parades). During some demonstrations and other marches, I was concerned how the police put up barricades to pen us in. I didn’t feel quite as frightened as I was when I was a child. But recently, I was reminded of how afraid I was when the guard yelled.
I was walking near my Bronx apartment with a sign around my neck as I headed to a Black Lives Matter demonstration. On the sign, I had written, “This grandma believes Black lives matter.” I suddenly felt vulnerable as cars passed by me. Would someone yell at me? Or worse, swerve to hit me as I crossed the street?
I considered taking off the sign and holding it until I arrived at the demonstration. I stood up as tall as I could, took a long slow breath, and kept it around my neck. I continued walking, and I realized how privileged I was to rarely feel afraid when I walk on the street.