(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 16, 2017)
Southfield, MI – At 75 years old, Southfield resident Rose Nicholson’s marching days are over. From the sidewalk of Civic Center Drive she watched as three grandchildren – Nicholas, Anthony and Mariah Abner – marched in the Annual Martin Luther King Peace Walk Monday morning, honoring a tradition of nonviolence and community that she witnessed first-hand 57 years ago.
Nicholson was a freshman at Alabama State University when nine of her classmates were expelled from school for taking part in a protest march following arrests at a “whites only” lunch counter. She spent one tremulous year at school, taking part in protests, attending meetings with Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta, facing blatant hate, and hiding in fear the night the Klu Klux Klan rode up to the doorway of her dorm.
“My dorm was on the third floor of Bibb Graves Hall,” she said. “There was a desk up against the window and we’d sit on the desk to look outside. The night the Klan came through we were so frightened. That really frightened us. They rode through campus with their tall hoods, about six of them on horses, making all kinds of noise, sounding like ghosts. We were all so scared. They didn’t have cell phones then, just a black phone at the end of the hall and everyone ran for the phone to call home. The dorm was at the end of a cull de sac and they rode ride up like they would run right into building and they turned just before. It was the scariest thing you can imagine. We didn’t know what would happen, if they were going to kill us, or set the dorm on fire. We didn’t know.
We were all just kids, and they terrorized us. It was horrible. We were so young, didn’t know anything about the world. Some people didn’t finish school there were so scared.”
“After they came to campus, Dr. King had a meeting at Dexter Church. He called all the people together and taught us to stand up in a peaceful way and not to be afraid.”
Nicholson began to protest along with other students. “The police would tell us, ‘see that line, if you cross it we’ll arrest you.’ And if they wanted to they’d push you, so even if your toe crossed the line they’d snatch you up and take you off to jail. They’d put you in the paddy wagon.”
She hadn’t told her boyfriend that she was marching and going to meetings. But then at a rally she saw him. “He said ‘what are you doing here?’ and I said ‘what are you doing here?’ And I knew he was a good one for me.”
He finished school a few months later and they moved to Columbus GA, where she felt safe. Her husband taught music, a profession that led them to move to Detroit 40 years ago so he could teach band at Central High School.
“I never understood why people raised so much Cain over the color of people’s skin. Life is too short to spend it worrying about somebody else just because of some pigment,” Nicholson said. “When we cross over to the other side, we aren’t going to be in these bodies no more. We’ll be something else and you won’t be able to recognize who is black, or who is white. It don’t make no sense to worry about it now.”
She remembered being a little girl growing up in Dothan, Alabama, about 100 miles South of Montgomery, and being confused by segregation.
“I was a good looking colored girl. I know they don’t say that now, but that’s what we used to call ourselves. I was a pretty colored girl, a pretty black girl. I had light skin and fine hair compared to other little girls. And my mamma always dressed me up really nice. It wasn’t right but people gave me a lot more attention because of how I looked. It wasn’t right but that’s how it was.
“We’d go to the dime store and there were two drinking fountains, one for whites and one for blacks. I was little and I didn’t understand what the difference was. I thought the fountain for the whites must be something really special.
“We were there one day and I was just looking at the fountains, trying to figure out what must be so special about it. And this clerk came over, a real nice lady. No one else was around and she said ‘you wanna try the other fountain don’t you?’
“She took me over there, looking around like we were doing something wrong, and it was a big deal. And you know what? It was just water.” Nicholson laughed a lot while she shared her story, but this part cracked her up quite a bit. “It was just water. I thought for sure it was gonna be something special. Like it had a special flavor or something. But it was just plain water.”
As she waited for the hundreds of participants in this years’ walk, she thought about how her grandkids lived in a different world than she had. “I know there is still racism, but it’s not like it was. Every day we had people so hateful, so mean. We were scared everyday that we would be killed or hurt. People said hateful things right to our faces,” she said. “This generation coming up now doesn’t have the same kind of hangups and hate.”
She added that there is still work to do. “Remembering Dr. King is how we can teach the young people about standing up for themselves with dignity and peace.”
The peace walkers went from Hope United Methodist Church to the Southfield Civic Center where there was a program that included speeches, music and performances to celebrate MLK Day.
To learn more about the Martin Luther King Jr. Taskforce and the work they do year-round to honor King’s legacy, check out their website at http://www.mlktaskforcemi.org/.