Dee was feisty.
Just ask the kids she grew up with in post-World War II Virginia.
“I used to fight a lot,” she told me when I interviewed her for a newspaper story a few years ago. “Even though I was one of the shortest kids, I wouldn’t back down from anyone.”
For example, she told me that even among the other black people in her community, her father was unusually black. Which wasn’t an issue for Dee -— until one of the neighborhood children teased her about it.
“I didn’t really think about it — I just reached up and popped her in the mouth,” Dee said, chuckling at the memory. “Mama told me I shouldn’t do things like that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was feisty.”
The seventh of 10 children in her family, Dee lived in an isolated community, so she didn’t experience much bigotry in her life until she went to high school. And when she finally did experience it, out came all of that feistiness.
“We had to go to segregated schools,” she said. “We had to ride on segregated buses. We couldn’t go to the same stores and restaurants as the white people in our town. We had to drink out of different water fountains. Even as a teenager, it just seemed so wrong to me.
“But if I ever got angry about it, Mama would say, ‘This is just the way the world goes ‘round,’” Dee remembered. “I didn’t want to believe that. I wanted to do something about it.”
Her opportunity came a few years later. By then, America’s Civil Rights movement was sweeping across the nation. Black churches like Dee’s were joining forces to march and rally and protest for their rights. Lifelong bonds were formed among those who linked arms and stood together in defiance of centuries of discrimination.
On one such occasion, Dee found herself on the front row linking arms with the man who was leading the march that day: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The march was peaceful,” Dee said. “We were just walking and holding hands and singing that song, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Then these boys come along and started hollering horrible things at us. Martin said, ‘Pay them no mind. Just keep singing.’”
Dee said she could do that – she didn’t care what those boys said. But then the boys started spitting on the marchers, and that’s where Dee drew the line.
“I told Martin, ‘I can’t stand nobody spitting on me,’” she said
“And he said, ‘Dee, you keep your head straight. Don’t look to the left or the right. You just walk, no matter what they do to you.’
“And I said, ‘But I can’t stand nobody spitting on me.’
“Then he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, then you have a choice to make. If you stay with us, someone might spit on you, and you have to just wipe it off and move on. But if you can’t do that, then you need to turn around and head home right now.
“He said, ‘We are peaceful. And we have to stay peaceful. This is the way we have to do it. If you can’t, then you can’t come.’”
Dee said she gripped Dr. King’s arm tighter.
“‘OK,’ I told him. ‘I can do it.’
“Then I prayed hard that nobody would spit on me.”
Thankfully, nobody did. But there were plenty of others who were spit upon — and far worse — during America’s great wrestle with race. And now, 50 years later, it appears that we’re wrestling again — or maybe we’re just still wrestling. Either way, it’s clear that we haven’t overcome — not really. Not completely. No matter what the song says.
So it’s good for all of us — regardless of ethnicity — to remember Dr. King’s words to Dee as they marched together, arm in arm: “Keep your head straight.” “We have to stay peaceful.” And if others try to disrupt our peaceable walk, “Pay them no mind. Just keep singing.”
Then maybe we shall really, truly, completely overcome – someday.
(To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to www.josephbwalker.com.)