It’s Glendale, California, early 1930's. Black people know they have to be outside the city limits before dark.
Mama, a civil rights activist before the title had hardly been invented, tells me about the injustice of the so-called “sundown laws.”
Mama tells me about the hardships the sundown laws cause for hardworking people, like the Black maids who work in the big houses in the Rossmoyne district up near the country club. “If they’re not out of town before sundown, they’re harassed by the police, and sometimes they’re picked up and dropped at the city limits. Some of them even lose their jobs!”
Mama knows first hand how much a job means to poor people.
One night about dusk, Mama and I are on the bus, headed home to south Glendale after a visit to our old neighborhood in Montrose. The bus driver is driving as though he is in a hurry. When we get to the Rossmoyne district, the bus driver speeds up even more, passing the first bus stop. A Black maid is left standing on the curb.
“Did you see that?” Mama says. “He drove right past that lady! And it’s almost dark!” Mama rises up in her seat and looks ahead to the next bus stop. “Let’s see if he’s going to stop for them.”
Two elderly Black maids are standing on the curb, waiting for the bus. The bus driver isn't slowing down. At the last possible moment, Mama reaches up and pulls the stop request cord.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” the driver says under his breathe, but loud enough for everyone to hear. He jams on the brakes and swerves the bus to the curb. Mama gathers up our belongings, takes my hand, and leads me to the back door of the bus. When the door opens, we don’t get off.
As soon as Mama sees the Black women are on the bus, Mama calls out to the driver in an apologetic tone, “Ohhh, my mistake, I thought this was our stop.” We go back to our seats.
The bus driver shrugs and drives on, but when Mama makes the same “mistake” several more times, forcing the driver to stop, he loses his temper. “Lady, make up you mind! You and that kid either get off my bus or stay in your seats!” Mama smiles. We’re out of the Rossmoyne district.
Eighty years later, I remember how proud and scared I was. I was proud of Mama for helping the ladies, but I was also scared of what that bus driver might do. I was even scared of the other passengers, even the ones we knew. When Mama and I walked down the aisle past them to the back door, but didn't get off the bus, they frowned and looked like they were mad at us. Mama told me, “They aren’t really mad at us, Patty, they just want us to stop making the bus driver mad. They don't want trouble.”
Mama was never willing to shut her eyes to injustice just to avoid trouble.
Thirty years later, when Rosa Parks made another bus driver mad, triggering the Civil Rights Movement, I'm sure Mama was cheering from her seat in heaven.