Wake up Everybody - first day of forced desegregation in Jackson, the novel
This day was the official execution of the supreme court decision. Even though a decision to desegregate had been handed down way back in the fifties, Jackson was just now getting around to it. The bulk of students from what I could see were all white. They looked well put together and finished, like the kids from Thomas Road back in Beaumont. It looked like Beach Blanket Bingo with everybody wearing sweaters.
The line of armed officers put me off. I’d never seen cops with guns off tv. A big yellow school bus pulled up slow and you could hear the brakes decompressing like the breath of something dying. We all looked at the black students sitting inside. I heard the bus driver say, “go on and get off, niggers.” That was shocking. Sure, I’d heard the word, but it was said in private by people who considered themselves too civilized to say it out loud in public. The openness of expression here was astounding. You really picked up on the regional attitude, for lack of a better word.
One by one, the students began to step down. The young men wore suit jackets with ties and starched shirts. The girls had perfectly coifed hair, processed to look like the girls in magazines and wore new dresses and coats. There were only a few, maybe ten or so, and they looked scared. I was scared, too, and I wanted to hop on that bus and ride far away from this place.
The bus took off and left them standing alone in the midst of the police squad cars parked in a semi-circle around the front entrance. The engines were running and lights were flashing on top. The line of helmeted officers was armed with night sticks and guns. There was something fearful about them. They looked like they took their jobs seriously and it was a blood curdling sight to behold. A school secretary wearing spectacles with rhinestones peered out of the window from inside.
One student, a white girl, was sitting in a group near the main door. She looked like any ordinary high school kid and wore her hair shoulder length. She was making a weird sign in the shape of two ‘o’s’ with her fingers touching. I thought it was something like sorority girls might do to let you know they were in a club. It wasn’t until way later I found out what it really meant. She was making the white power sign. The gesture signified the number ‘8,’ the letter ‘h’ being the eighth letter of the alphabet. This girl was demonstrating the code for Heil Hitler. There was good reason to be nervous.
The bell rang long and hard. It was time to go in. Schools were filled with people who had capacity for intense cruelty, a popularity contest I was always doomed to lose. Schools could be scary places, but this one was spine-tingling. There was apprehension like something scary was afoot. It was in the air.
I noticed a shy black girl making her way inside. She wore a crisp dress with new shoes. Her hair was styled in a 60’s bouffant with a tiny pink bow. I looked over at her, but she kept her eyes downward. I didn’t reach out. What was there to say anyway? It seemed like everybody had a friend to walk to class with but her. And, me.