In 1962 when I was seven, my family moved from Ohio to South Carolina. When we arrived, my parents enrolled us in Saint Anthony’s Catholic School. Three years later, when it came time for my tenth birthday party, Mom suggested that I invite all the girls in my class. I thought it was a great idea, so I announced my plans to my schoolmates and told them I’d deliver their invitations in a few days. After my announcement, some of my friends pulled me aside and told me not to invite Vicki, the only African American girl among us. I remember feeling cornered; my friends really put lots of pressure on me to leave Vicki off the guest list.
I knew it would be unkind to invite everyone except Vicki, but Vicki wasn’t a particularly good friend of mine, so I didn’t know quite what to do. When I finally took the invitations to school, I left Vicki’s at home. I tried to be discreet when I delivered them to the other girls, but Vicki saw me and said, “Where’s mine?” I lied. I told her I’d forgotten it, and then I told her the same lie for two more days until my conscience got to me.
When I told my Mom what I’d done, she said, “Honey, Vicki would feel so hurt and left out if you didn’t include her,” but Mom never told me I had to invite Vicki. She let me make my own decision, and I gave Vicki her invitation the next day.
Back in the 60s, most white people who lived in the South wouldn’t risk inviting African Americans to parties—especially during daylight hours—for fear of violent repercussions. I didn’t consciously know that, but Mom and Dad did, so they planned to keep the party in the backyard, hidden away from people passing by. But you can’t hold back a bunch of kids very easily, and we eventually ended up playing in the street. Many years later Dad said, “I knew we wouldn’t have any problems with our neighbors, but I wondered if someone less tolerant would drive by and see Vicki in front of the house and take it out on us later. I had my gun by my side that night because I wondered if we might have a cross-burning on the lawn.”
Twenty-nine years after my party, I sat in an ophthalmologist’s waiting room in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and I struck up a conversation with an African American man sitting next to me. Within minutes, we discovered that we were the same age, and that we had both lived in the South during the 1960s. We traded stories, and when I finished my tale about the birthday party, the man paused and said, “Your parents were very brave.” So many people were courageous then, and so many still are now
I believe in the immense power of small acts of courage. They may go unnoticed, but they sure add up.
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