"Mister, do you think you could get the driver to slow down? He's going to get us killed."
This from a worried young black man dressed in a suit who had been sitting in the back of the bus.
The young man had first asked the driver to slow down and was told to "sit down or ring the bell and get off the bus." Then he turned to me. I was sitting up near the driver.
Did I mention it was 1954? In East Texas?
I should have known something was wrong when I had to wake up the bus driver on the back seat of the bus, about 15 minutes earlier. It was in the middle of the night in Troup, Texas, and the driver shot up off the back seat and lurched down the aisle and within minutes we were roaring down the road.
All over the road actually. It didn't take us long to figure out the driver was drunk or crazy.
Ten minutes later I was off the bus and out on the road, walking with four blacks in the middle of the night in Jim Crow country, trying to find a farmhouse and a telephone. I was not just cold I was frightened. I was in East Texas. East Texas was Jim Crow country.
It was December 1954, just before Christmas. I was a senior in high school. We lived in San Antonio, Texas. My parents had left for Tyler, Texas. Tyler or nearby was where most of our relatives lived. We had moved to San Antonio just as I was entering high school.
I had stayed back for a few days to work at the J.C. Penny in downtown San Antonio. I was to join them later, taking the train from San Antonio to Troup, Texas.
So, in the afternoon, I left work with my bag and took a cab to the Missouri Pacific Station. The trip to Troup took 8 hours, as best I can recall. We got to Troup around midnight.
To get to Tyler, thirty miles away, you had to take a bus. At first we couldn’t find the bus driver but the same young black man said he was asleep on the back seat of the bus and so I woke him up. I remember him vividly because like a former cousin in-law of mine, he had a hook for one of his hands. My relative had lost his hand in WWII.
The driver seemed to still be half asleep as he lurched down the aisle.
There were about ten passengers, most of us from the train. Half us us white, half of us black. The blacks sat in back of the bus.
As I said, soon after we got under way it became obvious that something was wrong with the driver.The driver was swerving erratically back and forth all over the road. The road was narrow and winding. The young black man went up front and asked the driver to slow down. The driver loudly told him to go back and sit or to “ring the bell and get off the bus.”
The older white passengers, mostly women, were silent, staring straight ahead.
Then two of the young black men came to me up front and asked if I could get the driver to slow down. I went up and asked him to slow down.
This time he yelled at me that we all should sit down, "unless you want off the bus, with your friends back there."
I went back and I talked with some of the younger black passengers who seemed about my age. Several said we ought to get off or "we were going to get killed."
So I rang the bell, and five of us — two black women, two black men, and me—got off the bus. The white passengers didn't say a word.
It was cold, down in the thirties and dark, without much moon. We all walked to a farmhouse we'd passed a half-mile back. Not a single car passed. It was about one o'clock in the morning.
While the others waited in the yard, I stepped up on the wooden porch. A suspicious white woman finally answered my knock and lei me in to use the phone. She offered to let me wait inside until my relatives came to pick us up, but I declined.
When I finished my call, I went out to tell the group we had a ride. I waited on the porch, facing the group silently standing in the moonlight at the edge of the yard. The lights went off in the house. My father and cousin came to get us.
My cousin wasn’t happy to be hauling the passengers in the back seat and he let me know as much. My dad didn't say anything. The ride to Tyler was in almost total silence.
I grew up in East Texas. I was born in Marshall, and we moved next to Jacksonville, Texas, and then to El Dorado, Arkansas, and then to Tyler.
Everyone lived in duplexes — my family, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles. We lived in small brick or frame duplexes built in the 1930s for families who came to work in boom towns while the Great Depression was going on.
My grandparents in Kilgore, Texas, lived in an even smaller, unpainted frame duplex, surrounded by a forest of oil derricks. Yet even in those early years I was learning about politics.
When we occasionally drove over to Louisiana, my father always remarked about the better roads there and the accomplishments of Huey Long, a very controversial man who nevertheless left tangible progress that was plain to see when one crossed the state line, leaving Texas.
At the edge of some of these towns in Texas, in Tyler and Texarkana, I had found small, shabby black schools, some of them little colleges, hardscrabble schools for black children. I would ride my bike past Texas College in Tyler and wonder what went on in the mysterious place where "colored people" studied, apart from us.
The trip to Tyler, looked at one way, was a fairly routine event on a small road in East Texas. The woman let me make the call, and my father and cousin took us all to town, if a little indignantly, a little put out.
After we had let the four others off, my father went to the bus station to complain to the management, but otherwise we never talked much about the incident again. My father wasn't a racist but I always suspected that he wondered if it might have been better if I had simply sat tight and not ring the bell, not stir things up.
Yet for me the trip was a kind of reset button, a new starting point for me, helping me to see myself and my life in the South in a very different light. It came to symbolize for me the way in which race drives a wedge into our communities and our common humanity and shared interests.
The four people standing at the edge of the yard, waiting to see how things turned out, opened me up to compassion and the larger world outside of my own dreaming.
My bus trip and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 helped me see these pitiful schools in the towns where I lived in an entirely new light; I wrote a senior honors paper that year on segregation in Texas schools; to do so, I visited a black school and interviewed the principal.
An editorial I wrote for the high school paper, opposing segregation and the pledge of resistance to Brown by southern governors, was picked up and carried by the Christian Science Monitor.
In time I formed a geologic sense of politics, seeing our politics as the struggle to live with the deep forces moving under the surface of American society and culture, the struggle to live with the divides, to bridge them when one can, and able to close them only rarely.
Race and class are not our only divides. I discovered how much culture and religion separate us as well when, in the early years of graduate work I began to study alcohol policy and later Prohibition.
But race is the one big thing shaping the divides of American life. Political parties are crucial to our history, but the big societal fault lines of race, religious moralism, government versus the market or the private section---these are equally important in shaping politics.
Almost none of this was in my mind back when I was a high school student nearing graduation; what it did was to plant deep within my heart the permanence of the gulf between me, standing on the porch, and the people waiting at the front of that yard and that as long as I ignored that gulf I would only be half alive.
That divide ran far beyond East Texas, out across nation, and the only remedy I could think of was to invoke low a huge political power to bridge and overcome such divides. That power would come from the outside of the South, from Washington, and the national government. It would be a power that spoke for the common people, the poor and the middle class alike.
Two years after the bus incident and after my first year in Austin at the University of Texas, I enlisted in the U.S. Army (the draft then made it seem likely that I would go anyway) and I encountered my first taste of social equality.
My basic training company at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, was filled with blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cajuns, and whites—recruits from all over the United States.
The man who slept in the bunk above me was named Bergeron he was from somewhere near Homa, Louisiana.(There are a lot of Bergeron's in that part of Louisiana, so I don't think I'm even close to revealing who I am remembering.)
Bergeron was shocked, as many of us, to find himself surrounded by blacks and Puerto Ricans in the lunch line, in the showers, and in the squad rooms. He reacted by fighting, endangering the few teeth he had left.
Still, by the end of the eight weeks we had settled into a kind of rough camaraderie, forged as much in Juarez Chihuahua as in boot camp. The army, as much as any experience I had growing up taught me the rules and practice of shared equality, despite its order of rank and hierarchy. You slept on the ground, you ate together, you played together, and you learned together.
A year later, when traveling across the country in a Greyhound bus, I interceded with the driver when he told a black woman that she couldn’t get off to get milk for her baby. In those days I seemed to work out my coalescing ideas of social justice on the bus, and after the Army, standing in line to integrate movie theaters.
For many young people of the South during the 1950s, it wasn’t a march across the Selma bridge or police dogs or sit-ins that brought home to us the great divide of race. Instead it was minor incidents like getting off the bus with four strangers in Jim Crow country in the middle of the night in East Texas.
The memory of the silent group of blacks standing in the moonlight across the yard has had more to do with my ideas about politics and about myself than any hundred books I have read since.
My very idea of myself as someone who had to leave home and its values, as someone who sought the dignity and respect for each individual and a system of social equality to secure that dignity, has its origins in this incident.
Although we were physically separated by only a few dozen yards, we might as well have been standing on the opposite sides of the Grand Canyon. Into that great chasm could slip the entire hopes of a great nation.