Anne Ashmore-Hudson: If we come to terms with our history, we can be incredible

"Young people of color today definitely have more opportunities, but there is still an unevenness of opportunity."

Anne Ashmore-Hudson
Ashmore-Hudson, center, attempting entry to the Magnolia Room at Rich’s department store in 1960

Photograph by A.L. Adams

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

Growing up, I felt the impact of both race and gender. I felt constrained at home because I was a girl and overprotected, and outside my community, I was constrained because schools, hospitals, buses, hotels, restaurants, churches, and even the YMCAs were all segregated. We could not stay at a hotel, or go to Atlanta’s main library downtown unless we had a special reason. To see movies at the Fox Theatre, you had to climb hundreds of steps to reach the segregated balcony.

I remember, when I was 10 years old, I cut my arm while washing dishes and was bleeding profusely. My father scooped me up and jumped into the car. He sped past Georgia Baptist Hospital, only a block away, to take me to Grady Memorial Hospital. When I asked my father why, he said, “I can’t take the chance that they could turn us away.” His reaction made me aware of the life-and-death consequences of segregation.

I was invited to a secret planning meeting for nonviolent protests during the spring of my freshman year at Spelman College. We planned 10 simultaneous protests at dining establishments across the city. My group, led by Julian Bond, met at Atlanta City Hall. The cafeteria had a large sign announcing “Public Welcome.” When the cafeteria manager refused to serve us, Julian pointed to the sign. She replied, “That didn’t mean you.” Then she called the police. It was the kind of double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of: I believed in the American dream, too, but as I grew up in the South, I realized that there was a different American reality for me.

My sophomore year, I was in the first “Jail, No Bail” protest with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Rich’s department store and its segregated Magnolia Room restaurant. I was in the Fulton County Jail for four days before Dr. King negotiated a compromise. While in jail, we taught our freedom songs to the regular inmates. We listened to their stories, we studied when we could, and we sent notes to each other via jailhouse trusties. I wrote a note to the male protesters, who were on the other side of the jail, saying how much they inspired us and how brave they were. Decades later, I discovered that my small note was given to Dr. King, and it was among Coretta Scott King’s personal papers. It was a small note of appreciation; I was surprised and honored that Dr. King kept it.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, I was in graduate school in Boston. I was protectively cautious, thinking, We’ll see. But things did change. My acceptance into the University of California PhD program in clinical psychology was one change. I’m not aware that the clinical program at Berkeley had accepted a person from a historically Black college before me, and they’d begun accepting African American students from Ivy League colleges only three years before.

Young people of color today definitely have more opportunities, but there is still an unevenness of opportunity. Black children in middle-class families will have a very different experience than Black children growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The middle class—Black, White, and other—feels endangered to me. It’s concerning to have leaders with power but without compassion. This country could be extraordinary. We are a country of immigrants, with the exception of Native Americans. Some of us were unwilling immigrants, like my ancestors. But the ideals are here, and we could create a country full of new ideas, full of compassion and inclusion. Of course, we must also come to terms with our history. Then we can be incredible.

Dr. Anne Ashmore-Hudson is a clinical psychologist. She lives in Washington, DC, where she formerly served as an appointee to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts under President Obama.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.