Op Ed
November 14, 2008

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My children were not there when…

by Rev. Helen Nelson

I think the most important image (“FEEL GOOD: The World Reacts,” Kansas City Camera Patrol, www.kcactive.com/edge/kccp/index.htm) is the last one, with the young black boy looking up with pride, trust and hope in his eyes.

When it was announced on TV that Obama was our President-Elect, I was so excited, I was jumping up and down in my living room, praying, shouting, praising God, crying, saying over and over again, "It's a miracle!" I grabbed tubes of lipstick and wrote on my glass storm door, "PRAISE THE LORD!"

My son called to let me know he and his wife landed safely in Houston to visit family there after I had taken them to the Kansas City airport earlier that evening. They had voted before they flew out. I was still crying hysterically and kept saying, "It's a miracle!" My son had no idea what was going on and was so worried about me. He had not yet heard that Obama won. When I told him, he was pleased, but could not understand why I was so emotional.

He could not understand, for he was not there, when I was a child, and there were separate water fountains, restrooms, restaurants, stores, barber and beauty shops, schools, hospitals, churches and neighborhoods. He was not there when my little brother (who is blind) and I attended a black school for my brother to receive special education classes. We could not have our black friends visit us at home for fear of what our neighbors would say and do to them. My children (now age 28 and 26) were not there when my grandmother and I in an act of civil disobedience gave up our seats on a Memphis city bus in 1961 for a pregnant black woman and her children. My children were not there when my mother and I (at age 12) organized benefit concerts to start the first Head Start program in Memphis for black children in the basement of Beale Street Baptist Church; or when it closed early in the day due to riots during the sanitation workers' strike. They were not there when my white mother, who normally was known and respected in the black community of Memphis as a jazz and blues singer and civil rights activist, had to drive home in fear after being surrounded by mobs of angry and violent protesters with clubs, burning cars and buildings. They were not there to worry how my postal worker father was going to get safely home, prayerfully worrying and waiting ‘til he arrived long after dark, as there were not yet any cell phones.

My children were not there when my church kicked out my Sunday school teacher for bringing a dark-skinned foreign exchange student from Pakistan to church. My children were not there when King was shot and killed, and we had a curfew for weeks and my parents could not go to the nightclubs where my mother sang and my dad played drums so we had to borrow money for food to eat. They were not there when my parents later separated and my mother's black pianist brought us groceries. The neighbors assumed she was a prostitute and so egged our house, prayed in church for her death and petitioned for our removal from the white neighborhood. My children were not there when my mother was arrested and jailed for walking down the street with a black man and had no identification because her purse had been stolen; or when I was stopped by the police curious as to why a white teenage girl would be in an all-black neighborhood, all black except for my mother, that is.

My children were not yet born when my mother's family said they would disown her if she married a black man after she and my dad divorced. So they lived together outside of marriage. My children were born then, and knew this sweet black man as their Grandpa Bud during their early childhood until he died of cancer.

My children did not see the tears on the face of a black minister colleague I ministered with in Kansas and Missouri as she was denied access to a public restroom in route from a church in Wichita in 1992. My children never had to worry when we lived in integrated neighborhoods where they could form and maintain friendships with children of any racial, ethnic or religious background without fear for themselves or their friends.

So, you see, even though my children might have an intellectual knowledge of our nation's history, my children could never have the same emotional reaction as those who lived through these experiences. Thank God, my children do not have to understand. The world has changed forever.

Rev. Helen Nelson lives in Raytown, MO.


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