We Shall Overcome – by Phyllis Lyte

My friend Phyllis sent me this email, which I am publishing here in full, with her permission:

During the presidential primaries, my Democratic friends and I had spirited discussions about the fact that there were so many candidates from which to choose.  We discussed our perceived pros and cons and gave our reasons for preferring certain candidates over others.

Gradually, it became clear that Barack Obama might overtake Hillary Clinton and I began to feel an excitement for our country that I hadn’t felt since John Kennedy’s election.

I was raised in the integrated north by a mother who grew up in the segregated south.  By the time I was ten years old, I understood about the ugliness of prejudice and segregation.  As a busy college student in San Antonio, Texas, I wasn’t interested in politics, especially since Texans couldn’t vote until age 21.  Gradually, I became aware of the efforts being made to desegregate.  In San Antonio, that came without violence when some blacks were served at the downtown Kresge’s lunch counter. 

After graduation, I stayed on in San Antonio.  One day, this white, pregnant female, accompanied her dark-skinned Mexican husband and his “black” friend to the big movie theater on downtown San Antonio’s main street.  After parking the car behind the theater, we headed down the side street toward the front entrance.  The friend said he’d meet us at the car after the movie.  Not understanding, we asked where he was going.  He pointed to the one bare light bulb above a single door at the top of three flights of fire-escape stairs. (I had never noticed it before.) He told us that he had to go in that way because there was a special balcony up there for blacks!

We insisted that he come with us and all agreed to take the risk of suffering serious consequences.  I bought the tickets.  No one outside said anything.  I went in first and, as the men followed, the boy taking tickets did two double-takes, but said nothing.  We found good seats on the main floor and enjoyed the movie without incident.  We had unofficially desegregated the theater!  I can only imagine how our friend felt.  For me, it felt like a triumph.  Eventually, I fully understood how much danger we had invited and was grateful that we hadn’t been attacked.  I would do it again.

Several years later, back in Connecticut, when I was a working mom and my children were not yet old enough to understand, we arrived home to the report of President Kennedy’s assassination.  I was still in shock and my deep feelings of loss had not abated when we got the news of Dr. King’s assassination.  I have no words to describe my despair.  I had hoped that the sacrifices being made by the civil rights’ activists were the true beginning of the end of all segregation and the inevitable changes that this would bring. 

A few years later, I found myself in San Diego, California, teaching in an integrated elementary school.  We had assemblies each January on Dr. King’s birthday.  Over a period of six years, I taught the K-3 group to sing, “We Shall Overcome”.  I was always sad but ever hopeful that I might be planting seeds of future awareness and understanding, leading to changes for the better.

These are small gestures, perhaps, but they were things I could do.  Through the tumultuous years that followed, I continued to hope.

On November 5, 2008, I was a poll worker.  We were busy until about 4:00, when it slowed down to a trickle of voters.  I couldn’t figure out why.  I headed for home at 8:20 p.m., Pacific Standard Time and turned on the radio.  As I drove into my driveway, I realized that I was listening to John McCain’s concession speech.  Early returns and exit polls had already concluded that Barack Obama was the winner!

I sat in front of my TV set in awe of what the voters had done.  The country had gone from my mother having had a black “mammy” to electing a black president.  At eight years old I had seen and learned about the signs that said, “No Dogs or Negroes Allowed”.  At age 71, I could rejoice at the election of a man of colored skin, chosen mainly because of his perceived abilities and personality and the possibilities of change that he has offered us.

As the realization sank in, I became fully aware of how much hope I had lost over the years, of how much despair I had felt over the my country’s problems, and  the great sadness I felt for those still suffering from the effects of racial prejudice in our country.  I realized that I have hope again! 

Watching from my living room on November 9th, when President-Elect Obama addressed the huge crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park, I shouted and cried with joy, as if I were there.  I felt connected to the millions of Americans who had worked so hard to make this happen and all those here and around the world who could see that we are changing.

Our country is in a big mess.  President-Elect Obama has been very busy preparing for the daunting responsibilities he is about to inherit.  He has said that he is not perfect and that it will take time for his policies and actions to result in the changes that we need.  There will continue to be many challenges for all of us.

For now, I look forward to the history-making inauguration with increasing excitement each day.   I now have hope that change really has come to America and that “We Shall Overcome.”

Leave a Reply