In 1958, when I was 19 years old and newly arrived in Canada from England, I went on a vacation to Mexico with friends. At the end of the trip we stopped for a few days in New Orleans. I’d just read the book “Dinner at Antoine’s” and imagined my self walking down a stately staircase holding a mint julep! I’d hardly taken a sip (which was ghastly) when I felt a blinding headache. But it wasn’t from the drink. I was taken to a hospital where I was diagnosed with severe encephalitis. My friends had to return to their jobs in Toronto and I was left behind in a coma. I woke up in the hospital but had to stay for three more weeks. I was eager to get home. The lawyers I worked for paid the hospital bill, leaving me just enough money for a bus ticket through the states. That’s when I learned that things are not always as they seem.
Despite the fact that in 1956 the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. declared that laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional, the south did not abide by that decision. While on the bus travelling through Alabama, I sat alone in a double seat, and so did the woman in front of me, so we each had an empty seat beside us.
An elderly black couple boarded the bus and I could see that only single seats were left available. I got up to offer my spot, intending to move up and sit with the other woman. I wondered why everyone stared, but guessed it was because of my English accent. My new seat-mate was reading from the Bible and said, “You shouldn’t have done that. They are pigs and belong at the back of the bus.”
I said that I couldn’t understand how anyone could be reading the New Testament and say a thing like that, but she continued to say awful things about “coloureds”. That’s when the driver stopped the bus, came back to me and said, “kid, you know nothing about the ways of the south and you’ve upset this white American woman.” He physically removed me from the bus, telling me to get on the next one!
I was alone in Montgomery, Alabama, still weak from the illness, really hot, miles from Canada, with no luggage other than a toilet bag and my passport. I walked down the street and saw a sign for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It had the same red bricks as the Baptist church in which I’d been brought up in England. I assumed I’d be safe in there for awhile and could get a glass of water, so in I went. I had no clue it was “a black people’s church” or that it was the epicentre of the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
A lovely woman came to me, looking worried, and told me I shouldn’t be there as there might be trouble. She said she’d fetch the doctor for me. She went away and came back with a man who had such a kind face and was so gentle and caring. I have his face in my mind to this day. He took my hand, dried my tears, listened to my story and gave me some water. I had no idea that I was talking to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He said they’d lead me to the bus station but that I had to walk a ways behind them. At the station, I saw there was a counter for “coloureds” and another for white folk.
That experience has stayed with me throughout my life, a constant reminder that we must all fight for the truth: that we are all one, created by a loving God.
Mary Dayton—MCC Toronto