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Thurgood Marshall — Scene 15

Factors Influencing Now Let Me Fly

"A Little Less Mad, A Little More Do"
Writing Now Let Me Fly

Versions of this speech were delivered by Marcia Cebulska:

This talk is called "A Little Less Mad, A Little More Do" as a tribute to Charles Houston, who taught Thurgood Marshall and an entire generation of civil rights lawyers at Howard University.

Photograph: Marcia Cebulska speaking at Washburn University.I'm starting with the "mad" part.

If you'll forgive a personal anecdote, I'll tell you about a time when I was fourteen and quite mad indeed. Livid. Enraged. You see, some guests at my family's home had spent an evening blaming every problem Chicago had--from violent crime to parking--on "the colored." I knew they couldn't possibly mean the sweet-tempered woman who cleaned our suburban house. Or Bobby and Clarence, my uncles' helpers on their fruit and vegetable trucks. Or did they? I wondered how the adults in my life could be so prejudiced, short-sighted and just plain ignorant?

I was mad. So the next day, when I took my usual Saturday bus trip to downtown Chicago, I stomped down the aisle to the back of the bus and sat myself down next to a middle-aged black woman. She even moved her shopping bags to make room for me.

Now I had heard about white people not being willing to sit next to black people so I thought I knew what I was doing. True, my information was a little vague since I paid a lot more attention to American Bandstand than to the News but still I was mighty proud of myself. I was wondering if this is what they called a "sit-in."

I rode on.

The buses were not air-conditioned in those days and it was sweltering hot but I rode on. My usual stop came and went and I rode on. I rode on as the bus moved into the South Side of Chicago, into what we would have called "a colored neighborhood."

I rode on while the bus emptied out until the only people left were the woman with the shopping bags and myself. I did not care. I would sit there until the end of the line if need be. I felt that right.

I rode on.

I rode on until the black woman next to me turned and said, "Would you mind moving to another seat? It's awful hot in here."

If you had asked me in my angry adolescence what was wrong with "Separate But Equal," I couldn't have answered you. It sounded American. It had the word "equal" in it, after all. Yet that angry 14-year-old knew something was wrong and bless her well-intentioned heart, she tried to do a little something to fix it.

Fast Forward a few decades and I found myself in Topeka, Kansas. A friend and fellow writer, Tom Averill, suggested I submit a proposal to Washburn and The Brown Foundation to write a play for the anniversary of Brown v. Board. He thought I might adapt a novel called "The Flood" about an East European family living in Topeka during the '50s.

I'd already written a play about a Polish family in an ethnically changing neighborhood in Chicago in the '50s, so it was familiar territory. The idea was that the play might be performed by Washburn students for anniversary 48 or 49, one of the years leading up the big 5-0.

Fast Forward another 3 years. I have indeed written a play, but this one is for the actual 50th anniversary. It's called "Now Let Me Fly" and it's about African Americans involved in a national struggle for an end to legalized segregation. It was performed for an audience of thousands at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, featuring a star-studded cast.

Simultaneous with the performance for the big day, there were readings of the play all over the country at venues from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

A play with readings all around the U.S.A. How did this happen? How did I get here? Am I still the angry 14-year-old girl on the bus? And what happened to that play about white folks in Topeka during the Brown era?

What happened in a word is: research. I started reading and talking to people. Learning. Pretty soon I knew I could know longer write the original play.

It started with the lawyers. You see, like many Americans, I had been under the mistaken impression that Brown v. Board was about one lawyer and a little girl who didn't want to walk very far to school. So I read Juan Williams' book about Thurgood Marshall and lost my heart. I was captivated by Mr. Marshall. I was smitten. High school buddies with Cab Calloway, he sang and danced. I loved that. I was ready to put him in zoot suit and tap shoes and call my play "Cab and Goody." Then I read about the 20-hour work days, the hundreds of lawyers and social scientists he consulted to come up with a strategy.

A strategy! I had had no idea there was a strategy. I learned. I learned not only about Thurgood Marshall but the other lawyers involved in the struggle. How they had to travel: the black lawyers staying in people's homes because they weren't allowed in the white hotels. How they ate at the back doors of restaurants, next to the garbage cans, because they weren't permitted inside. One night Thurgood Marshall was taken on a ride to a tall tree with a short rope. Lucky for him and for us, his colleagues saved him. I moved on to a new working title: "The Trials of Thurgood Marshall."

Then I learned about Charlie Houston--a name I had never heard before--Thurgood Marshall's teacher and mentor. Houston's students called him "Old Iron Shoes" and "Cement Pants" at Howard Law School but he taught them this: "A lawyer who is not a social architect is a social parasite." And, on a more casual level, he said to his passionate but ineffective would-be world-changers like my 14-year-old self: "A little less mad, a little more do."

More research and I found out that Oliver Brown and his family were not just looking for a shorter route to school but human dignity. And I learned they were not alone but part of a movement. There were unsung heroes and heroines to be recognized. I changed my working title to: "Brown v. Board: A National Memoir" and wrote my proposal.

I'll have to confess to you that when I was awarded the commission, I was very proud of myself. As I did more research, though, my pride turned to humility, admiration and awe. I learned about the hundreds of people in the movement who developed strategy, suffered indignity, endured sacrifice and demonstrated incredible courage.

I read the oral histories at the Washburn University School of Law and learned stories of World War II soldiers who were guards over Nazi prisoners-of-war but were not themselves allowed in the movie houses on base because they were black. Woody, a character in my play says, "They were laughin' in there at Laurel and Hardy and we black soldiers had to stand outside and shuffle." Fighting for freedom but not having it themselves, veterans were a part of this movement.

I learned about Gardner Bishop, a barber in Washington DC, who organized the parents and children in his neighborhood where the school was not only separate but the black school was crowded and ill-equipped. The only science equipment in the whole school was one Bunsen burner and a bowl of goldfish.

"A little less mad and a little more do"? In my play, Bish says: "What are our kids gonna learn from watchin' them goldfish swimmin' around? I'll give you do. I'm gonna organize, proselytize and deputize." And he did. Led by Gardner Bishop, 1500 students went on strike. An entourage of taxi cabs were organized to take the black students from their ill-equipped high school to the half-empty brand new fully equipped white school. Bish had to be a character in my play.

I learned about a housewife in Delaware who wrote letters to the governor because her adopted daughter was passed every day by a school bus on its way up the hill. The school bus was headed toward the white school--the one next to the country club, complete with rosebushes and a baseball diamond. Meanwhile, her first grader, Shirley Barbara, had six busless miles to climb to a one-room schoolhouse with broken chairs and broken plumbing.

As Mrs. Bulah says in my play: "I see plenty of separates but not much equals."

I learned that not all black people wanted this change. They were worried, justifiably, that their teachers would lose their jobs. As Rev. Kilson says in the play: "You think they're going to let a black woman teach white children? They will fire her black self as quick as that." And he snaps his fingers.

I learned that in South Carolina, houses were razed, churches burned to the ground, people run out of town. Citizens lost their jobs, their homes, and sometimes their lives. They were asking for a school bus. Black children rowed across a swollen river and walked seven miles to a shack of a dilapidated school. The people were asking for a bus. Just a bus. And then, when they were told "no" they didn't stop. They asked for a little more. And a little more. Then they asked to change the law of the land.

I learned that school children in Farmville, Virginia went on strike because they were going to school in tar paper shacks that leaked in the rain. These children marched to the court house and demanded better facilities. In retaliation, the public schools were closed altogether in Prince Edward County for five years. There is a museum at the R.R. Moton School today and I went there as part of my research. I walked the route from the school to the court house. I read the diary of the young girl who spoke out and led the strike. I had never heard of Farmville, Virginia until I started this work. This story of brave children is buried. Our own children do not hear this story.

My growing knowledge turned into a growing passion. The reason we are trying for readings all over the country and maybe the world is that so many of these people who lost so much during the struggle for us, for our future, have been forgotten. Their page in the history books wasn't torn out, it was never printed. If the play is performed, given a reading somewhere, perhaps it will start discussion, inspire someone else to make a difference. There are still problems to be solved.

But now how was I, a white woman, going to write this play? What in my experience could possibly have prepared me to write about African Americans in the 1950s? There's the research I just talked about, sure, but that was not my own experience.

Shakespeare wrote about kings and queens but was not royal. Was there anything in my life that I could call upon? You're probably wondering this yourself.

What did I call upon in myself since I am not black and cannot know that experience? What experience did I call upon?

Those are some of the things I called upon in addition to my dear family and friends of African American heritage who advised me, corrected me, and led me to sources to read and people to talk to until finally one of them read the play and said:

"How did you know?"
"How did you know this?"
"I can't believe a white woman wrote this."

And I kept on listening and correcting my text as I worked with the African American director for this play, and the African American executive producer of this play, and the African American actors in this play, for theatre is a collaborative art. And the play is not about me.

I started with a teenager and I'm going to end with one. Barbara Rose Johns, age 16, led her fellow students in a strike. She telephoned the NAACP and the case became one of the Brown cases that went to the Supreme Court. If we're talking about a "little less mad and a little more do," we have to include her. In contrast to my well-intentioned 14-year-old's effort to make the world spin in a different direction, Barbara Johns inspired a lot of do.

When researching the play, I interviewed people across the country. Barbara Johns is no longer on this earth so I could not interview her. Her speech which inspired 400 fellow students to walk out on strike is nowhere to be found. I spoke to her fellow students, teachers at R. R. Moton High, I read her diary. I so wanted to find out what she really said but there is no record. One of her friends from the time told me, "You're just going to have to be creative and write it for her, now won't you?" With great reluctance and respect, I did.

Imagine yourself in a small crowded school auditorium in Farmville, VA. The principal and teachers have been sent away so they will not be implicated in the plot. You might be sitting on a hard wooden folding chair or more likely, you are standing. You know there has been discontent but you don't really know what's coming until she speaks.

From "Now Let Me Fly"--

BARBARA ROSE JOHNS

Every morning I get on a bus thrown away by the white high school on the hill. I sit on a torn seat and look out a broken window. And when my bus passes the shiny new bus that the white high schoolers have, I hide my face 'cause I'm embarrassed in my raggedy bus. And when we get to R. R. Moton High, the bus driver gets off with us, 'cause he's also our history teacher. He comes in the classroom and fires up the stove and I sit in my winter coat waiting for the room to get warm. You know the rooms, the ones in the "addition" as they call it. We call them "the tar paper shacks" because that's what they are, am I right? I'm embarrassed that I go to school in tar paper shacks and when it rains I have to open an umbrella so the leaks from the roof won't make the ink run on my paper. And later in the day I have a hygiene class out in that broken-down bus and a biology class in a corner of the auditorium with one microscope for the whole school. I'm embarrassed that our water fountains are broken and our wash basins are broken and it seems our whole school is broken and crowded and poor. And I'm embarrassed.

But my embarrassment is nothing compared to my hunger. I'm not talking about my hunger for food, though it would be right nice to have a cafeteria with lunch instead of just sticky buns like we get. No, I'm hungry for those shiny books they have up at Farmville High. I want the page of the Constitution that is torn out of my social studies book. I want a chance at that "Romeo and Juliet" I've heard about but they tell me I'm not fit to read.

Our teachers say we can fly just as high as anyone else. That's what I want to do. Fly just as high. I said, fly. You know, I've been sitting in my embarrassment and my hunger for so long that I forgot about standing up. So, today, I'm going to ask you to stand with me. Before we fly, before we fly just as high as anyone else, we gotta walk just as proud as anyone else. And that's what we're going to do! We're gonna walk out of this school and over to the court house. Do you hear me? We're gonna walk with our heads high and go talk to the school board. Are you with me? We're gonna walk out in a strike, yes, I said strike, and we won't come back until we get a real school with a gymnasium and library and whole books. And we will get them. And it'll be grand. Are you with me? Are we gonna walk? Are we gonna fly?

Thank you.