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My life in the wake of a dream

02/07/2008

Adele Berger Nicols

My name is Adele Berger Nicols. My home state is Mississippi and I am a daughter of the Civil Rights Movement. While I was in elementary school, my father was number one on the Ku Klux Klan's execution list. There were many times I would answer the phone and receive threats that one or all of my family members were going to be killed.

My father said the people who called were members of the Klan. One person identified himself to me as the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. I wasn't able to truly understand what that meant but knew it sounded frightening. I would hear horrible things said about my father by my classmates and friends at school. The ridicule was random, and most of the time I was able to ignore it because my father told me the kids were influenced by things they heard within their homes and didn't know any better. Still...it had an effect on me.

In my hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, the early 1960s represented the epitome of racial violence and strife. The National Guard occupied Natchez three times as an attempt to quell the conflicts and help bring some order and safety to the community. Along with black churches, the homes of certain white sympathizers of the Civil Rights Movement were being bombed. One night I remember hearing a dog barking in my front yard and went to open the curtains to look out. I was quickly admonished and ordered to close the curtains and move away from the window. Nothing else was mentioned about it until many years later, when my father told me that for six months, he had hired a gunman to guard our house throughout the night to help keep it from being bombed. The gunman sat across the street on our neighbor's hilltop.

It is baffling to me now as I try and understand how I did not know what was happening during that time period. I wonder sometimes how much I may have actually understood but simply blocked out of my mind. My parents thought I was too young and tried shielding me from too much information as a means of protection. Still...it had an effect on me.

In 1964, my father was chosen to be a delegate in the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The delegation was there to support the Democratic Party candidate, Lyndon Baines Johnson. However, with one exception, they ended up walking out of the convention, retracting their pledge to Johnson, in protest of his Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had just been passed into law by the House of Representatives. The one exception was my father, Fred Berger, who stayed loyal to his party and to the support of the black community who had been denied the right to have representation at the convention. This was a pivotal time for the nation and for my father's career as a civil rights attorney. His courage and commitment was noticed by the whole country during the walk out of the Mississippi delegates.  I, on the other hand, didn't really grasp the scope of his commitment until decades later.

During the peak of violence in the South, 1964 saw more than 1,000 for the cause of racial freedom. They worked hard to increase voter registration and opened community centers where all people could assemble together. They would help build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The Freedom Democratic Party was one of the most important and distinctive institutions to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement. It challenged white supremacy in the most repressive state in the South, combining grassroots activism with a radical social agenda.

Nineteen hundred sixty-four was a defining year for my family. My father's law practice had been boycotted, which meant anyone who attempted to hire his services was at risk of being harmed or killed. He was still at the top of the KKK's death list. President Johnson instructed the U. S. Department of Justice to offer my father a job and soon we were off to the Washington, D.C., area to live. He hated his job, as it was just a lawyerly administrative position, and he could only support Dr. King's vision and non-violent movement from a distance. But at least we were all safe.    

There was such a stark difference between the northern and southern cultures, I may as well have been in another country. During the two years away from the South, I thought much about the issues of bigotry, education and ignorance. I didn't understand how my white friends back home could be so cruel in their views of black people and wondered if they'd been exposed to more tolerance within their homes, perhaps their beliefs would be different. Mostly, I questioned what it meant to stand up for equality.

One year after the "Voting Rights Act of 1965" was written into law, the political and social climate of Mississippi had calmed down enough for us to be able to move back there and into our home. I was beginning the sixth grade. A lot had changed in Natchez, but it was clearly only the beginning of change.

While we were away, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 enforced the Federal Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that schools needed to be desegregated. As a result of the Civil Rights Act, my friends eventually left the public school system and went to private and parochial schools. I was angry with my father for not letting me join them and for forcing me to stay in the public school system and move to a school that was 90 percent black. It made no sense to me, and at that time I hated him for it. He simply said, one day you will thank me. Hearing him say that made me hate him all the more, though I quickly let it go as I had to get on with the adjustments that needed to be made. It would be a long time before I could fully assimilate the significance of his actions and the history that was being made.

This year will mark 30 years since my father's death. He died a happy man and about to be re-elected unopposed as Chancery Judge by the same community that once prevented him from making a living and threatened his life.

Today, as history is being made in this unprecedented presidential race, I can't help but think of Dr. Martin Luther King's journey and the legacy that he left this nation. Not only was my father's life path distinctly shaped by Dr. King's leadership but mine was as well. My four children have often told me they wish they had known their grandfather...to which I always reply...you can know him by the stand he took for integrity and equality and by finding out what it is that you stand for. In my opinion, the Civil Rights Movement is far more global today. It is a human rights movement and we all play a role. We will either contribute to the problem or the solution. "Which one are you contributing to?"
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