Our one and only car was in need of repair so I took it to a garage to be fixed. A black man who worked there gave me a ride home in his car. I started to get in the passenger seat and he panicked.
“No, no, ma’am! Get in the back, please!”
“Why?” I asked.
“People would see and they wouldn’t like it. Please.”
I reluctantly got in the back seat and asked him why he would want to live in a place that gave him so little freedom and forced him to live like a second-class citizen. He explained to me that he had visited family in Chicago once but hated the cold weather and missed his friends so came back to Mississippi. It was home.
I described to him how when I walked down the street and a black man was on the sidewalk heading in my direction he would cross to the other side of the street to avoid me. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I said I had half a mind when that happened again to cross the street and force him to walk by me. My driver just about swerved off the road.
“I don’t know why not!”
“You want to get somebody killed? Is that it?”
“Of course not.”
“Then don’t be doin’ somethin’ that God-almighty, bone-headed stupid ma’am!”
He calmed down.
I was an idiot, of course. I knew how dangerous it was for black men to have anything to do with white women. But in my northern white girl naiveté I wanted them to stick up for themselves! This mechanic could drive me home but only if I sat in the back. Any hint of impropriety and his life would be in danger. I felt as if I were living in the dark ages. Local television commercials told me “moonshine kills” so stay away from it, candidates running for public office didn’t bother using correct grammar and had teeth missing, schools were supposed to be integrated but still were almost completely separate and civil rights workers disappeared and showed up dead a year later. Louisiana was no haven for black people but maybe Neeva was right, Mississippi was worse.
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