Originally published January 27, 2007
20 Years Ago
I don't remember where I got on the bus but I do remember getting on the bus. There were thousands of us. There were hundreds of buses. So many people I had to stand. Seats were given to the elders. I remember thinking at the time it was no big deal as we were only travelling a scant 40 miles. Standing for such a short time seemed a small sacrifice.
I remember the week before - watching the news. As a Georgian, I was horrified by the images of rocks and bottles being tossed at peaceful protesters. I remember thinking this could not be happening in my state. Not now. Growing up in a small south Georgia town, I was familiar with racism. Had witnessed it first hand. I remember hearing the stories from two decades earlier of gangs of men armed with rifles and shotguns. But this should be different. This was Atlanta. This was my new city. One filled with enlightenment, culture and understanding. Even though the images on my television were coming from just outside Atlanta, it seemed too close. Too real.
I remember the girl I was dating at the time. She was angry at first. Then she cried. She did not want me to go. She had seen the images. She had seen the young man dressed in a jean jacket and Confederate flag t-shirt with hate in his eyes. She was also from a small south Georgia town and knew the potential consequences. She begged, she screamed and she cried.
On the bus, I remember we were a strange melange. I stood next to a man much larger than me. A friendly guy with a New York accent. He had just moved to the area and like myself had been shocked by the images on the news. A transient man in a transient city confronted with images that should have never surfaced again.
Spread among us, usually sitting in seats, were the elders. They had marched when marching truly mattered. They shared stories. They sang songs. They led us in "We Shall Overcome", "I Shall Not Be Moved" and"Blowing In The Wind". They taught me songs most 18-year olds had never heard.
The ride was long. Much longer than any of us anticipated. The caravan of buses and vans stretched for miles. Back then Georgia 400 was still a rural highway, not the suburban autobahn it is today. The buses lurched and stopped, lurched and stopped. My new friend and I swayed back and forth, grasping the hand rails.
I remember snow on the ground. It had snowed a few days prior and the remnants still dotted the shoulders and the woods. Eventually people began leaving the buses and dashing for the woods. Relief being the only remaining sliver of thought in their mind. Next to me, my new friend chuckled and muttered, "Don't eat the yellow snow".
I remember arriving on the outskirts of Cumming. It was all too familiar. A few convenience stores. A fast food restaurant. And all too unfamiliar. For the first time, the people in Klan robes were not pictures in books. They were standing on the side of the road. Staring at us. Staring at me.
As we assembled I thought about the rumors we had all heard. The gun stores had been cleaned out. The liquor stores had been cleaned out. The FBI had snipers in the woods. I remember my idealism of the night before seeping away in the reality of seeing men and women and children standing behind a wall of National Guard. Men and women and children with hate in their eyes.
I remember a lone girl standing on the side of the road. She wore Klan robes but mostly I remember her shoes. Bright, white, new Reeboks. We all saw her. She could not have been more than 15 years old. We would later nervously laugh and call her "white frocks and Reeboks".
The organizers lined us up. We were instructed to lock arms. We were told to always look forward. We were told to never, ever respond. No matter what we heard, we were never to engage those with wont to turn non-violence to violence. I remember locking arms with my new friend from New York and moving forward.
I remember we never came close to the Cumming city square. We were simply too many. At one point, we topped a hill and I could see all those before us. I was near the back and had a clear view of almost everyone. Thousands of people. A large undulating mass of people, locked arm in arm, singing and chanting, stretching to the crown of the next hill and then disappearing.
We never heard the speeches. They were too far ahead. I remember being able to see the top of the court house and imagining John Lewis standing somewhere up there in the distance. Speaking of evils he had seen and evils that still lived.
Soon after we returned to the buses. Soon the buses returned to Georgia 400. Soon the buses returned to Atlanta. Soon I returned to campus.
I remember calling the girl I was seeing at the time and only hearing an answering machine. I remember her terrible temper. I remember later that night when she knocked on my door. We embraced and we both cried together.
Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution / Steve Deal