I bought my ticket and took a seat in the section of the Greyhound bus station reserved for Whites only in St. Petersburg, Florida. At the age of 19, I was leaving my home state to join the United States Air Force. The year was 1959.
When I boarded the bus, I took a seat near the front, while African-Americans moved on to the back. Everything was perfectly normal; I gave no thought at all to the fact that from the time I had arrived at the depot that day, Blacks went one way, and Whites went another. That was the way it had been all my life.
One year after I left home, Florida integrated its first public school in accordance with the Supreme Court’s mandate in Brown vs. Board of Education, and to this day, when I think about that decision, I have a potent memory.
I was in my final year of high school. I had a senior paper to do, and I was in the library; it was about 7 o’clock in the evening. While I was there, I saw something I had never seen before. There were three black students in the main branch of the library, sitting on one side of a long table studying. Then in a few minutes I saw three white boys sit down at the same table across from them. One of them held up a paper with threatening words on it. The three black students, one boy and two girls — probably 15 or 16 years old — closed their books and left the library. The three white boys looked satisfied.
Of course, I don’t know what happened to those three black students, and there was no way that I could ever find out, because the state law said we could not go to the same school together — nor could we watch a movie together — nor could we eat a hamburger together — nor could our parents use the same laundromat — nor could we go to the beach together; they had theirs and we had ours.
So I don’t know what happened to those three kids. Did they get their school work done? What did they tell their mom and dad when they got home? What did their mom and dad tell them?
If they are alive today, what do they remember? They have to remember our city buses with the signs at the back, “rear seats reserved for colored.” They have to remember the two fountains at Sears, one for “colored,” one for “white.”
They have to remember the day their parents explained to them that their lives would never be the same as the white kids.
So today I wonder how their lives turned out. I wonder what they are telling their grandchildren today? I know what I am telling mine.
“God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.”
And if I were in one of the many protests that are going on now, it would be for George Floyd and those three kids who, because they were Black, weren’t even allowed to read a book.
— Bill Coate,