On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A. & T., a black college in Greensboro, entered the local Woolworth's department store. After making a few purchases, they sat down at the lunch counter, an area reserved for whites. Told that they could not be served, they remained in their seats until the store closed. More than any other event, the Greensboro sit-in launched the 1960s, a decade of political activism and students were on the cutting edge of social change. In 1960, the writer James Baldwin visited Tallahassee, Florida to report on student activism there. Baldwin ruminated on the underlying causes of black protests and marveled at the militancy and idealism of the younger generation. To Baldwin, the movement challenged all Americans to rethink whether "We really want to be free" and whether freedom applied to all Americans or only to part of the population.
I am the only Negro passenger at Tallahassee's shambles of an airport. It is an oppressively sunny day. A black chauffeur, leading a small dog on a leash, is meeting his white employer. He is attentive to the dog, covertly very aware of me and respectful of her in a curiously watchful, waiting way. She is middle-aged, beaming and powdery-faced, delighted to see both the beings who make her life agreeable. I am sure that it has never occurred to her that either of them has the ability to judge her or would judge her harshly. She might almost, as she goes toward her chauffeur, be greeting a friend. No friend could make her face brighter. If she were smiling at me that way I would expect to shake her hand. But if I should put out my hand, panic, bafflement, and horror would then overtake that face, the atmosphere would darken, and danger, even the threat of death, would immediately fill the air.
On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend, and that is why I find the South so eerie and exhausting. This system of signs and naunces covers the mined terrain of the unspoken—the forever unspeakable—and everyone in the region knows his way across this field. This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the South refers to when it speaks of its "folkways." The fact that the gesture is not made is what the South calls "excellent race relations." It is impossible for any northern Negro to become an adept of this mystery, not because the South's racial attitudes are not found in the North but because it has never been the North's necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro's inferiority. That is why the battle of Negro students for freedom here is really an attempt to free the entire region from the irrational terror that has ruled it for so long.
Of course, there are two points of view about the position of the Negro in the South and in this country, and what we have mainly heard for all these years has been the viewpoint of the white majority. The great significance of the present student generation is that it is through them that the point of view or the subjugated is finally and inexorably being expressed. What students are demanding is nothing less than a total revision of the ways in which Americans see the Negro, and this can only mean a total revision of the ways in which Americans see themselves.
The only other black man at the airport is one of the shapeless, shambling ones who seem always to be at southern airports for the express purpose of making sure that I get my bags into the right taxicab—the right cab being the one that will take me. And he performs this function in the usual, head-down way. There is an alcove here with "Colored Waiting Room" printed above it. This makes me realize that a study of federal directives regarding interstate travel would have been helpful only if I had come South to be a test case— that is, if I had come to be a story as opposed merely to writing one. As an interstate passenger, both I and the airport would be breaking the federal law if I were to go into a colored waiting room.
I tell my taxi driver that I am going to the university. There is no need to specify which of the city's two universities I mean, and he tells me that there are people going there all the time. Oh, you people have caused a lot of talk, he seems to be saying. He is a pallid, reddish type, around forty. I suppose, quite good-natured and utterly passive. There seems to be no point in asking what he thinks of the situation here. Even to mention it is to mark oneself as a troublemaker, which my typewriter, accent, and presence have already sufficiently done. Yet I have the feeling that he would love to say something about it— but perhaps if he did he would also be marked as a troublemaker. I volunteer a few comments about the landscape, in the faint hope of opening him up. The South is very beautiful but itsbeauty makes one sad because the lives that people live, and have lived here, are so ugly that now they cannot even speak to one another. It does not demand much reflection to be appalled at the inevitable state of mind achieved by people who dare not speak freely about those things which most disturb them.
The cab driver answers me pleasantly enough, taking his tone and also, alas, the limits of the conversation from me. We reach the campus of the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. It is a land-grant college. When it was founded, in 1887, "by constitutional provision and legislative enactment," it was the State Normal College for Colored Students. Later on it became the Florida A & M College for Negroes. After the Second World War—possibly, by this time, it had become redundant—the "for Negroes" was dropped.
It is a very attractive campus, about a mile outside of town, on the highest of Tallahassee's seven hills. My driver seems very proud of the state of Florida for having brought it into being. It is clear that he intends to disarm any criticism I may have by his boasts about the dairy farm, the football field, the guesthouse, the science buildings, the dormitories. He is particularly vocal about the football team, which seems to be, here as on less beleagured campuses, the most universally respected of the university's achievements. F.A.M.U. turns out, in fact, to be just as poor a center of learning as almost any other university in this country. It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. The fact that F.A.M.U. is a Negro university merely serves to demonstrate this American principle more clearly: and the pressure now being placed on the Negro administration and faculty by the white Florida State Board of Control further hampers the university's effectiveness as a training ground for future citizens. In fact, if the Florida State Board of Control has its way, Florida will no longer produce citizens, only black and white sheep. I do not think or, more accurately, I refuse to think that it will have its way but, at the moment, all that prevents this are the sorely menaced students and a handful of even more sorely menaced teachers and preachers.
My driver impresses upon me the newness of most of the campus buildings. Later on I found out that these buildings date from 1956, just two years after the Supreme Court declared the separate-but-equal statute to be invalid. The old buildings, however, are dreadfully old and some of the faculty live in barracks abandoned by the Air Force after the Second World War. These, too, were "renovated" after the separate-but-equal statute had been outlawed. During the time that "separate-but-equal" was legal it did not matter how unequal facilities for Negroes were. But now that the decree is illegal the South is trying to make Negro facilities equal in order to keep them separate. From this it may not be unfair to conclude that a building, a campus, or a system is considered renovated when it has merely been disguised. But I do not say any of this to my driver.
The university guesthouse is not expecting me: this frightens and angers me, and we drive to a motel outside of town. The driver and the Negro woman who runs the motel know each other in a casual, friendly way. I have only large bills and the driver has no change; but the woman tells him she will take the money I owe him out of my room rent and pay him when he comes again. They speak together exactly as though they were old friends, yet with this eerie distance between them. It is impossible to guess what they really think of each other.
Some students I met in New York had told me about Richard Haley. I had written him and he now arrives and places himself, shortly, as my ally and my guide. He and another member of F.A.M.U.'s staff had come to the airport earlier to meet me but had arrived too late. I tell him that I had concluded, from the fact that I was not met, that the F.A.M.U. people had not wanted me to come and had taken this way to let me know. Haley is a tall man in his early forties, who, shortly after I left Tallahassee, was dismissed from his position in the Music Department because he backed the student protest movement. He looked grave as I spoke, said he appreciated my bluntness, and agreed that I might find hostility on the part of many of the people I was likely to meet. The events of the last few months had created great divisions in the Negro world. The F.A.M.U. president, for example, would not be glad to see me, for he and his supporters were hoping that the entire problem would somehow go away. These men are in an impossible position because their entire usefulness to the state of Florida depends on their ability to influence and control their students. But the students do not trust them, and this means the death of their influence and their usefulness alike. These men are as unable as the state of Florida to find anything that will divert the students from their present course.
Until now the Negro college president's usefulness to the students, to the Negro community, and to the state was determined by the number of alternatives to equality that he could produce out of the southern hat. The docility of the students was the tacit price agreed upon for more funds, new buildings, more land. And these were tangible alternatives, for these things were hideously needed. As for curricular expansion, it usually came about in order to contain the discontent of Negro students. For example, at one time the state made no provision for the study of law at its Negro university. Students then applied, with every intention of testing the legality of the state's position, for instruction in white colleges. To prevent such testing, law was added to the Negro university curriculum. And what has happened is that precisely those dormitories, chemistry labs, and classrooms for which Negro presidents formerly bargained are now being built by the South in a doomed attempt to blunt the force of the Supreme Court decision against segregation. Therefore, the Negro college president has, literally, nothing more whatever to offer his students —except his support: if he gives this, of course, he promptly ceases to be a Negro college president. This is the death rattle of the Negro school system in the South. It is easy to judge those Negroes who, in order to keep their jobs, are willing to do everything in their power to subvert the student movement. But it is more interesting to consider what the present crisis reveals about the system under which they have worked so long.
For the segregated school system in the South has always been used by the southern states as a means of controlling Negroes. When one considers the lengths to which the South has gone to prevent the Negro from ever becoming, or even feeling like, an equal, it is clear that the southern states could not have used schools in any other way. This is one of the reasons, deliberate or not, that facilities were never equal. The demoralizing southern school system also says a great deal about the indifference and irresponsibility of the North. The Negro presidents, principals, and teachers would not be nearly so frightened of losing their roles if the possibility of working in northern schools were not almost totally closed to them.
Richard Haley found a room for me in town and introduced me to the Tallahassee Inter-Civic Council, an organization that makes no secret of its intention to remain in business exactly as long as segregation does. It was called into existence by a bus boycott in 1956. The Tallahassee boycott began five months after the boycott in Montgomery, and in a similar way, with the arrest of two Negro coeds who refused in a crowded bus to surrender their seats to whites on the motorman's order. The boycott ran the same course, from cross-burning, fury, and intransigence on the part of the city and bus officials, along with almost total and unexpected unanimity among the Negroes, to reprisal, intimidation, and near-bankruptcy of the bus company, which took its buses off the streets for a month.
The Reverend C. K. Steele, president of the ICC, remembers that "those were rough days. Every time I drove my car into the garage, I expected a bullet to come whizzing by my head." He was not being fanciful: there are still bullet holes in his living room window. The Reverend Daniel Speed, a heavy, rough-looking man who might be completely terrifying if he did not love to laugh and who owns a grocery store in Tallahassee, organized the boycott motor pool, with the result that all the windows were blown out of his store. The Speed and Steele children are among the state's troublesome students. And Speed and Steele, along with Haley, are the people whom the students most trust. Speed's support of the students is particularly surprising in view of his extreme vulnerability as a Negro businessman. "There has been," he told me, "much reprisal," but he preferred that I remain silent about the details.
Haley drove me to the hotel that he had found for me in one of the two Negro sections of Tallahassee. This section seems to be the more disreputable of the two, judging at least from its long, unpaved streets, the gangs of loud, shabby men and women, boys and girls, in front of the barbershops, the poolrooms, the Coffee House, the El Dotabo Café, and the Chicken Shack. It is to this part of town that the F.A.M.U. students come to find whisky—this is a dry county, which means that whisky is plentiful and drunkards numerous—and women who may or may not be wild but who are indisputably available. My hotel is that hotel found in all small southern towns—all small southern towns, in any case, in which a hotel for Negroes exists. It is really only a rather large frame house, run by a widow who also teaches school in Quiney, a town not far away. It is doomed, of course, to be a very curious place, since everyone from NAACP lawyers, visiting church women, and unfrocked preachers to traveling pimps and the simply, aimlessly, transiently amorous cannot possibly stay anywhere else. The widow knows this, which makes it impossible for her—since she is good-natured and also needs the money—to turn anyone away. My room is designed for sleeping—possibly—but not for work.
I type with my door open, because of the heat, and presently someone knocks, asking to borrow a pencil. But he does not really want a pencil, he is merely curious about who would be sitting at a typewriter so late at night—especially in this hotel. So I meet J., an F.A.M.U. student who is visiting a friend and also, somewhat improbably, studying for an exam. He is nineteen, very tall and slender, very dark, with extraordinarily intelligent and vivid brown eyes. It is, no doubt, only his youth and the curious combination of expectancy and vulnerability, which are among the attributes of youth, that cause me to think at once of my younger brothers when they were about his age.
He borrows the pencil and stands in the door a moment, being much more direct and curious about me than I am able to be about him. Nevertheless I learn that he is from a Florida town not very far away, has a sister but is the only son of very modestly situated people, is studying here on a scholarship and intends to become a bacteriologist. There is also about him something extremely difficult to describe because, while all of us have been there, no one wishes to remember it: the really agonizing privacy of the very young. They are only beginning to realize that the world is difficult and dangerous, that they are, themselves, tormentingly complex and that the years that stretch before them promise to be more dangerous than the years that are behind. And they always seem to be wrestling, in a private chamber to which no grownup has access, with monumental decisions.
Everyone laughs at himself once he has come through this storm, but it is borne in on me, suddenly, that it is a storm, a storm, moreover, that not everyone survives and through which no one comes unscathed. Decisions made at this time always seem and, in fact, nearly always turn out to be decisions that determine the course and quality of a life. I wonder for the first time what it can be like to be making, in the adolescent dark, such decisions as this generation of students has made. They are in battle with more things than can be named. Not only must they summon up the force to face the law and the lawless—who are not, right now in Tallahassee, easily distinguishable—or the prospect of jail or the possibility of being maimed or killed; they are also dealing with problems yet more real, more dangerous and more personal than these: who they are, what they want, how they are to achieve what they want and how they are to reconcile their responsibilities to their parents with their responsibilities to themselves. Add to this exams: the peculiar difficulty of studying at all in so electric a situation: the curious demoralization that can occur in a youngster who is unable to respect his college president: and the enormous questions that, however dealt with or suppressed, must live in the mind of a student who is already, legally, a convict and is on a year's probation. These are all very serious matters, made the more serious by the fact that the students have so few models to emulate. The young grow up by watching and imitating their elders —it is their universal need to be able to revere them: but I submit that in this country today it is quite impossible for a young person to be speeded beyond his maturity in this way. This impossibility contains the key to what has been called "the beat generation." What the elders have that they can offer the young is evidence, in their own flesh, of defeats endured, disasters passed, and triumphs won. This is their moral authority, which, however mystical it may sound, is the only authority that endures; and it is through dealing with this authority that the young catch their first glimpse of what has been called the historical perspective. But this does not, and cannot exist, either privately or publicly, in a country that has told itself so many lies about its history, that, in sober fact, has yet to excavate its history from the rubble of romance. Nowhere is this clearer than in the South today, for if the tissue of myths that has for so long been propagated as southern history had any actual validity, the white people of the South would be far less tormented people and the present generation of Negro students could never have been produced. And this is certainly one of the reasons that the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., means so much to these young people, even to those who know nothing about Gandhi and are not religious and ask hard questions about nonviolence. King is a serious man because the doctrine that he preaches is reflected in the life he leads. It is this acid test to which the young unfailingly put the old, this test, indeed, to which it is presently putting the country.
I suggest to J. that perhaps he and his friend would like a drink and we carry my half-bottle of bourbon down the hall. His friend turns out to be really his distant cousin and a gospel singer, and I begin to realize that J. himself is very religious in much the same way I remember myself as being. But once I myself had left the church I suppose I thought all young people had, forever. We talk. I somewhat lamely, about the religious standards J.'s family expects him to maintain. I can see, though I do not know if he can—yet—that he talks about these standards because he is beginning to wonder about his lifelong ability to live up to them. And this leads us, slowly, as the bourbon diminishes and the exam begins to be forgotten, to the incipient war between himself and his family and to his strange position on the F.A.M.U. campus. J. is one of those youngsters whose reality one tends to forget, who really believe in the Ten Commandments, for whom such words as "honor" and "quot;truth" conjure up realities more real than the daily bread. From him I get my first picture of the campus, a picture that turns out to be quite accurate. The actively dissident students are a minority, though they have the tacit, potentially active support of the entire student body. J. is not one of the active students because he is going to school on a scholarship and is afraid of hurting his family by being thrown out of school. He himself confesses that the fact that he can be deterred by such a consideration means that he is "not ready for action yet." But it is very clear that this unreadiness troubles him greatly. "I don't know," he keeps saying, "I don't know what's the right thing to do." But he is also extremely unhappy on the campus because he is part of that minority of students who actually study. "You know," he says, with that rather bewildering abruptness of a youngster who has decided to talk, "the dean called me in one day and asked me why I didn't have any friends. He said: `I notice you don't go out much for athletics.' I told him I didn't come to college to be an athlete, and anyway I walk all the time and I've got all the friends I need, everybody respects me and they leave me alone. I don't want to hang out with those kids. They come over here"—the section of town in which we were sitting—"every night. Well, I wasn't raised that way." And he looks defiant: he also looks bewildered. "I got the impression that he would like me better if I was more like all the other kids." And now he looks indignant. "Can you imagine that?"
I do not tell him how easily I can imagine that, and he gets around to saying that he would rather be in some other college—"farther north, in a bigger town. I don't like Tallahassee." But his parents want him to remain nearby. "But they're worried about my leaving now, too, on account of the student sit-ins, so maybe —" He frowns. I get a glimpse of his parents, reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, burning up the long-distance wires each time Tallahassee is in the news. He tells me about the twelfth of March, 1960, when a thousand marching students were dispersed by tear-gas bombs and thirty-five of them were arrested. "I was on the campus—of course I knew about it, the march, I mean. A girl came running back to campus, she was crying. It seemed the longest time before I could make any sense out of what she was saying and, Lord, I thought there was murder in that town." But he is most impressed by this fact: "I came over here that night and maybe you don't know it, but this part of town is always wide open but that night —" he gestures —"boy, nobody was in the streets. It was quiet. It was dark. It was like everybody'd died. I couldn't believe it—nothing." He is silent. "I guess they were afraid." Then he looks at me quickly. "I don't blame them." I think that he means that he has no right to blame them. "I've got to make some kind of decision soon," he says.
I tell him that I am coming to the campus the next day, and this elicits from him the names of students he wants me to meet, and also the names of Reverend Steele, Reverend Speed, and Mr. Haley. I think it is safe to say that these three, along with one other person whom I cannot, for the person's sake, name —and it strikes me as horrendous that such a consideration should be necessary in this country—were the four Negro adults most respected by the students. This fact alone, since they are four utterly dedicated and intransigent people, ought to cause the municipality to reflect.
The next day I meet and briefly talk to A.—lean, light-colored, taciturn, nineteen, from Ohio, a sociology major, who has been arrested for his part in the sit-ins and is on a year's probation. He is very matter-of-fact and quiet, very pleasant, and respectful, and absolutely tense with the effort this costs him. Or perhaps I exaggerate, but I am always terribly struck by the abnormal self-containment of such young people. A. speaks about the possibility of transferring to another college. Somehow I do not get the impression that this possibility is very real to him, and then I realize that part of his tension is due to worry about his exams.
I also talk to V., eighteen, from Georgia, the skinniest child I have ever seen, who is also on a year's probation. He is rather bitter about the failure of the Negro community to respond as he had expected it to. "I haven't got to live with it," he tells me, somewhat unrealistically since, as it turns out, his relatives are determined to keep him in Tallahassee and he will certainly be living with the problem for the next couple of years. "I did it for them. Looks like they don't appreciate it." He was appalled that the Negroes of Frenchtown, the section of town in which I am staying, should have vanished on the evening of March 12. I got the impression that he had rather expected them to meet the students in the street with trumpets, drums, and banners.
During the sit-ins of February the students had attempted, without success, to see the mayor and had spoken, without results, to the managers of the local Woolworth and McCrory dime stores. (As of this writing, the mayor of Tallahassee, who, I was told, uses the word "nigger" freely, has seen the students of his city only at lunch counters and in court.) It was to break the official and managerial silence that the sit-in of March 12 was organized. It was on this occasion that members of the White Citizens' Council, along with friends, sympathizers, and people who "just happened to be in from the country for the day," met the students with baseball bats and knives. The good people of Tallahassee were not in the streets that day, of course; there were only the students, the police, and the mob; and from this, which has now become a pattern in the South, I think it is safe to suggest that the convictions of the good people have less reality than the venom and panic of the worst. The police did not arrest any members of the mob but dispersed the students with tear gas and arrested, in all, thirty-five of them, twenty-nine Negroes and six whites.
Tallahassee has been quiet since March 12. The students felt that this time they themselves had been too quiet. Students from Tallahassee's two universities —Florida State, set up for whites, and Florida A & M for Negroes—are not allowed to visit each other's campuses. And so, on a Monday night during my May visit, they met in a church to make plans for a prayer meeting on the steps of the Capitol to remind the town that the students had no intention of giving up their struggle. There were about twenty students, in a ratio of about two Negroes to one white. It was a CORE meeting (the Congress of Racial Equality is an organization dedicated to bringing about change by passive resistance in social injustice), and Haley, Steel, and the warrior to whom I can give no name were present as the Adult Leadership.
The prayer meeting had originally been the brainstorm of R., a white student, foreign-born, very measured in speech, very direct in manner. There was first some uncertainty as to whether the prayer meeting should be held at all because of the pressure of exams and the homegoing plans of students, many of whom would have departed by Thursday.
There had also been the hope originally, since CORE is by now a dirty word in Tallahassee, of getting broader community support by asking the ministers of all faiths to give the news to their congregations and urge them to join the students. It was possible to gauge the depth of official hostility and community apathy by the discussion this suggestion precipitated.
One of the Negro students suggested that not all the ministers were to be trusted: one of them would surely feel it his duty to warn the police. A white coed student protested this vehemently, it being her view that there was no possible harm in an open prayer meeting—"It's just a y'all-come prayer meeting!" —and refused to believe that the police would not protect such spectacular piety. And this brought up the whole question of strategy: If the police were not warned, then the prayer meeting would have to be described as spontaneous. "But you can't," said a Negro coed, "decide to have a spontaneous prayer meeting. Especially not on the steps of the capitol on Thursday at one o'clock." "Oh, it'll be spontaneous enough," said another student —my notes do not indicate his color—"by the time we start praying." D., a white coed, was against informing the police: "We love them dearly," she said with rather heavy sarcasm, "but I don't want them to get the impression that I'm asking their permission to do our thing." "We're not asking their permission," said another white student. "We have every right to have a prayer meeting and we're just informing them of it." "There's no reason," said the girl who felt that the police would not possibly do anything to peacefully praying people, "for them not to treat us just like they'd treat any other group of citizens."
This led to rather cynical laughter and someone, looking around the room, offered to name "oh, about twenty-five multicolored reasons." In all this there was no question of fear of the police; there was simply no belief whatever that they would act impartially or "that they might turn out," as Reverend Steele unconvincingly suggested, "to protect us." It is significant, I think, that none of the students, except for one lone girl—who turned out to be the daughter of a segregationist and who was therefore in a way defending her father against the imputation of villainy—believed that they could call on the police for protection. It was for this reason that it was decided not to ask the city's ministers to invite their congregations. "If too many people know, they'll just have time to call in all those people from the country and state troopers and it'll be a mess," someone said. And this left open the great question of how, precisely, to handle the police. Was it, strategically speaking, better to inform them or better to give them no warning. "If you tell the police," said one Negro student, "it's just as good as telling the White Citizens' Council." Again it is significant that no one, white or black, contested this statement. It was finally decided not to inform the police and to arrive at the steps of the Capitol singly or in pairs. "That way they won't have time to get their boys together."
Now the prayer meeting, in fact, did not take place. Phones began ringing early in the morning of the scheduled day, warning that news of the plans had somehow leaked out and the students could expect great trouble if they tried to get to the Capitol.
A day later I talk with Haley and ask him what, in his judgment, is the attitude of most white people in the South. I confess myself baffled. Haley doesn't answer my question directly.
"What we're trying to do," he tells me, "is to sting their consciences a little. They don't want to think about it. Well, we must make them think about it.
"When they come home from work," Haley continues, "and turn on the TV sets and there you are —" he means you the Negro—"on your way to jail again, and they know, at the bottom of their hearts, that it's not because you've done anything wrong—something happens in them, something's got to happen in them. They're human beings, too, you know," and in spades. We are standing in the hall of the university's music building.
It is near the end of the day and he is about to go and give an exam. I have heard him say what he has just told me more than once to some embittered and caustic student, trying with all his might to inculcate in the student that charity without which—and how this country proves it!—social change is meaningless. Haley always speaks very quiet. "We have to wake up all those people in the middle," he says. "Most white people in the South don't especially like the idea of integration, but they'll go along with it. By and by they'll get used to it."
And all this, I think to myself, will only be a page in history. I cannot help wondering what kind of page it will be, whether we are hourly, in this country now, recording our salvation or our doom.
I can tell from the way Haley looks at me that he knows that I am feeling rather caustic and embittered today. I wonder how he feels. I know that he is afraid of losing his job. I admire him much more than I can say for playing so quietly a chips-down game.
Haley goes off to give his exam and I walk outside, waiting for my taxi and watching the students. Only a decade and a half divide us, but what changes have occurred in those fifteen years! The world into which I was born must seem as remote to them as the Flood. I watch them. Their walk, talk, laughter are as familiar to me as my skin, and yet there is something new about them. They remind me of all the Negro boys and girls I have ever known and they remind me of myself: but, really, I was never like these students. It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I'd been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.
Well, they didn't have to come the way I came. This is what I've heard Negro parents say, with a kind of indescribable pride and relief, when one of their children graduated or won an award or sailed for Europe: began, in short, to move into the world as a free person. The society into which American Negro children are born has always presented a particular challenge to Negro parents. This society makes it necessary that they establish in the child a force that will cause him to know that the world's definition of his place and the means used by the world to make this definition binding are not for a moment to be respected. This means that the parent must prove daily, in his own person, how little the force of the world avails against the force of a person who is determined to be free. Now, this is a cruel challenge, for the force of the world is immense. That is why the vow. My children won't come like I came is nothing less than a declaration of war, a declaration that has led to innumerable casualties. Generations of Negro children have said, as all the students here have said: "My Daddy taught me never to bow my head to nobody." But sometimes Daddy's head was bowed: frequently Daddy was destroyed.
These students were born at the very moment at which Europe's domination of Africa was ending. I remember, for example, the invasion of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie's vain appeal to the League of Nations, but they remember the Bandung Conference and the establishment of the Republic of Ghana.
Americans keep wondering what has "got into" the students. What has "got into" them is their history in this country. They are not the first Negroes to face mobs: they are merely the first Negroes to frighten the mob more than the mob frightens them. Many Americans may have forgotten, for example, the reign of terror in the 1920s that drove Negroes out of the South. Five hundred thousand moved North in one year. Some of the people who got to the North barely in time to be born are the parents of the students now going to school. This was forty years ago, and not enough has happened—not enough freedom has happened. But these young people are determined to make it happen and make it happen now. They cannot be diverted. It seems to me that they are the only people in this country now who really believe in freedom. Insofar as they can make it real for themselves, they will make it real for all of us. The question with which they present the nation is whether or not we really want to be free. It is because these students remain so closely related to their past that they are able to face with such authority a population ignorant of its history and enslaved by a myth. And by this population I do not mean merely the unhappy people who make up the southern mobs. I have in mind nearly all Americans.
These students prove unmistakably what most people in this country have yet to discover: that time is real.