In a place and a time where everything you did or felt or thought was wrapped in words, there came a day, one day, where the most life-changing voice in my life was no voice at all. On that day, I learned the power and the integrity of silence.
The gray Spanish moss hanging from the trees was trembling; that’s the first thing I remember about the day when the blacks marched for their civil rights in the tiny southern town where my grandparents lived. There was no breeze at all, and yet the moss trembled.
My grandmother was in the kitchen. I heard voices ring out as Miss Annie and Miss Adele, one an old maid, the other married but briefly and divorced long ago, came through the back door. “Foolishness, just foolishness,” spat out Miss Annie, referring to this topic that had been on everyone’s lips for the past few weeks.
Blacks marching for their rights in this obscure portion of the deep South was unheard of and speculation was rampant: would the marchers be loud and raucous, would there be music and, of most concern, would there be violence?
As the three women conversed excitedly in the kitchen, I grabbed my book and headed out for the front porch swing. Usually I loved to sit and listen; as a child growing up in the deep South, I had treasured the wonderful stories told on the front porch, in the aisle of a store, on long walks — anywhere and everywhere. My world was wrapped in words. For a child, the words were such a wonderful cocoon, often accompanied by laughter, warm and true. And, more often than not, when children were around, the stories contained kindness, especially from adults in that child-centered culture.
For me, this was the best of the South: the sweet stories, the hearty jokes, the family legends. But with all the words — the stories, the jokes, the expressions of care — a dissonance began to creep in. Racism: that stain of cruelty on the soft beauty of my South became more and more obvious. I didn’t understand it; what child does? And, like so much in the South, it was never addressed directly. You had to infer it from certain looks, various asides or particular slants given to stories told by grown-ups.
This march represented a response to a different aspect of the South, one that troubled me deeply. What would I do if someone went after the marchers? And, more troubling still, what would I do if the marchers themselves were loud or demanding or angry? This wasn’t an easy question to answer, as there was a real likelihood that I would know some, or perhaps many of them. You lived close then in a small Southern town.
As mid-afternoon approached, people began gathering along the route of the march. As it was going right in front of my grandmother’s home, friends and neighbors began forming clusters of furtive whisperings. At first, I stayed on the front porch, soothed by the back and forth motion of the swing. But, as the hour approached for the march to begin, I too took my place on the sidewalk with a clear view of the street. My curiosity took me there, but my fear was what held me. The possibility of violence was palpable. As the saying goes, “A Southerner is polite until he’s angry enough to kill.” This issue of racism, sadly, could bring many to that level of anger.
The march began. Before I saw it or heard it, I felt it. Literally felt it as the ground beneath my feet began to shake with the unified stamp of all those feet. Row after row of resolute blacks marching towards us — in absolute silence. My God, the dignity of that silence! The marchers looked straight ahead, some of them with tears running down their cheeks, others with determined stares; but none looked angry or scared or uncertain. No one watching said a word.
Everyone was stunned into silence by the power of those feet moving through the dust. Only after the marchers had passed and were well down the road did the on-looking crowd begin to stir. The first distinct words I heard were Miss Annie saying, “Well, I never!” I realized that I was shaking. Walking back across the lawn, I joined my family on the front porch. They, like me, were silent. After a time, we went back into the house.
The next day, Miss Adele tried to dismiss the march with a comment or a joke, but quickly gave up the effort. For once, something had occurred that was beyond words. A threshold had been crossed; no talk could approach the inherent dignity of those silent marchers. In a culture where every day swam with millions of words, I now saw, for the first time, the incredible power of silence. And to this day, when something moves me profoundly, I find myself back in that sacred, quiet space.
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