A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Gene Roberts speak at the annual dinner of the UNC Greensboro Friends of the Library. Roberts is co-author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, for which he won the Pulitzer in 2006. Roberts has been a reporter since he started out covering the cattle sales in Wayne County, NC. He worked for the News & Observer in Durham, and went on to be a journalist and editor for the New York Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer, the latter of which garnered more than a dozen Pulitzers during his tenure.
Hearing Roberts speak in Greensboro had special significance. Not only because he was coming back close to home turf, but because Greensboro, like many southern cities, has its own claim to the civil rights struggle—like it or not. For us, the defining moment was the Woolworth’s sit-in, which took place 47 years ago and is still part of our living history. Folks of a certain age who pass each other on Elm Street, where Woolworth’s was and where our long-awaited civil rights museum will one day be, can nod politely and remember how very different this familiar landscape used to be, depending on the color of your skin.
I went to Woolworth’s a few days before it closed in the fall of 1993. The lady who served me coffee had been there working while the sit-ins occurred. I was a year or so away from taking a job at a non-profit, where the son of one of the four men who conducted the sit-ins (with the help and support of many other men and women students, notably the women of the historically black Bennett College and the white students of the Woman’s College, now UNCG) was one of the board members.
Roberts told a story of how he got help hoisting himself onto the sill of a high open window to hear Martin Luther King speak is a church in Durham around the time of the sit-ins.
He also told about watching a girl desegregate a high school in some other southern town. It had been decided that she should come to school after the start of the day, so that all the students would already be in their classrooms. It was thought that this would be less disruptive. Roberts watched with other reporters as the girl’s parents drove her to the corner in front of the school. She got out of the car and walked toward the entrance. Then, he said, she stopped, and began shaking all over—he and the other reporters could see this from the other side of the street. The moment stretched on, and they weren’t sure if she would be able to keep going. Then she straightened up, put her shoulders back, gathered herself, and walked inside.
Can you imagine being that girl?
Can you imagine being her parents, delivering her, and watching her walk away?
People say it takes courage to write the truth, and I believe that. But I can’t think of anything much more frightening than walking into a place where no one wants me. To walk past—and through—that fear. Then again, if your writing scares you that much, you may be onto something.
Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof Girl and Stories from the Afterlife. Stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines such as One Story, Verb and Glimmer Train, and in anthologies such as New Stories from the South: The Year's Best. Dalton lives in Greensboro, NC.