Sandwiched amid 70,000 people, the streets are lined with booths selling oils, bracelets, wood carvings and dashikis and the ever- and increasingly popular knock-off purses. Gotta love our people! You see the Pettus Bridge in the distance but you aren’t certain you’ll make it to its foot because there are so many people.
Braced against the barriers meant to funnel the crowd into the center of the street, you stand next to two friendly women who attend every year. Striking up a conversation, they tell you today is worse than the day before when President Obama spoke. Wow. They say the official march will be, then later, has been, called off. Too many people are already on the bridge, they say. For as far as the eyes could see, and beyond it too, on the other side, was a sea of folk. Watching the Brown Chapel AME Church service on the big screen, you endure the Reverend Jesse Jackson beg for money, and listen to the Reverend Al Sharpton hoop for far too long, so you decide to go for it–to try crossing the bridge.
Lord, look at the people wearing a hodgepodge of tees, light sweaters and heavy jackets, amid a mixture of Sunday-go-to-meeting all-white wearing church women and Alpha men in black suits with their classic black and gold ties. We see you Alabama A&M, Praire View, Alabama State, FAMU, Grambling and Howard. We see you my brother and sister Fiskities–reppin’ in these streets. Calling all my sisters to the floor. We see you my sorors of Delta Sigma Theta, AKAs, Zetas and SGRhos. We see you men of Alpha, Kappa, Sigma, Iota and those daggone Ques, a purple sea of them barking more than occasionally across the crowd. Black and white, Jew and Gentile, elders on canes, walkers and in wheelchairs, I even saw a lady on oxygen–they came. Young children came–pulled in wagons, pushed in strollers, hoisted onto shoulders, carried in arms and holding the tightly gripped hands of adults and each other. You do not want to get lost in this crowd. Someone leads We Shall Overcome and we all join in.
You think to yourself: Lord when we will overcome? All the while, you take just shy of a million selfies (okay maybe more like 100), trying to get that perfect one (’cause you’re a historian and an Instagram faux-tograher). To be honest, it’s in part what you came for. Once you’ve got some contenders, you think: I’m good to go. The frenzy of these commemorations is less appealing to you than thinking about the work still left undone. The special-ness of this moment for you, is the special-ness those around you feel. You think to yourself, today was a good day.
Having benefited from the casually-instituted up the bridge on one side and down the bride on the other rule, I can’t help but smile, thinking about my cousin and high school vice principal’s penchant for shouting: “On the left,” as we shuffled between classes. That seems like a lifetime ago. Yes, life is one big circle. Cutting off Broad and onto a side street, you can finally walk, breathe and think in the clear. You’re again, glad you came.
After a few blocks you double back to Broad. The crowd has definitely thinned. Your friend wants to buy a t-shirt or something. After a few failed attempts, your mind drifts to contemplation of your next stop–Popeyes (don’t hate)! You think to yourself, there sure is a lot of trash on these streets. It looks like the morning after an HBCU homecoming parade.
Your friend says: “Ain’t that yo girl over there?”
And then you see her: Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, your idol, sitting in a fold-out chair, like a queen on her throne (more like a queen on every throne). Your life is made. Manna from heaven. You once heard Dr. Cole say that she doesn’t believe in coincidences. Neither now, do you.
Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a graduate of the historic Fisk University ’03. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. She also holds a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee State University, ’14, where she formerly taught in the department of history, geography and political science. A professional historian and passionate HBCU advocate, she is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. She is also a regular contributor to HBCU Digest, is a co-host of Black Docs radio show, and offers a wide-range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life and of course HBCUs. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian, visit her website at www.CrystaldeGregory.com, or contact her via email at cadegregory@HBCUstory.com.