Pearl Cleage: Thanks to the Civil Rights Act, I had the chance to focus on being an American girl

"Before [I visited Howard in 1966], I had never been out of the state of Michigan, so the indignities of car trips where Black travelers were routinely denied access to hotels, restaurants, and public bathrooms were unknown to me."

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Pearl Cleage
Pearl Cleage

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

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.

One of the ways you can recognize that you have reached elder status is when you discover you can vividly recall events that took place 50 or 60 years ago. These are events that are now seen as having “historic importance,” even though in retrospect they may have seemed less so at the moment you were living through them in real time. That would certainly have been the case for me as a young person heading to Howard University from my home in Detroit. It was the summer of 1966, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was barely two years old.

Before that trip, I had never been out of the state of Michigan, so the indignities of car trips where Black travelers were routinely denied access to hotels, restaurants, and public bathrooms were unknown to me, as were segregated Jim Crow cars on passenger trains going south. When it was time for me to head off to school in the nation’s capital city, my father purchased first-class accommodations for me, tipped the sleeping car attendant in advance, and asked him to look out for me. The attendant, a distinguished Black gentleman, assured my father he would, and he did. He even allowed my friend Billy, who was riding coach on the same train, to join me in my private room so we could share the shoebox full of carefully wrapped fried chicken, homemade brownies, and a bright red Michigan apple his grandmother had packed for his trip.

We ate and talked and shared our hopes for this new adventure, until the ever-vigilant attendant knocked gently on my door and ushered my friend back to his seat, before returning to turn down my bed and assure me he would wake me up in plenty of time for breakfast. Too excited to sleep, I lay there for the longest time, watching America roll by outside my window, dreaming my 17-year-old dreams and never once having to worry about how far it would be to the next “colored” bathroom and where I would be allowed to lay my head, until I finally drifted off to sleep.

That’s what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 meant to me then. Freedom from fear. It meant I had the chance to concentrate on simply being an American girl, leaving everything she knew behind and stepping out into the world to try her womanhood on for size. Joyful. Confident. Fearless.

Pearl Cleage is an artist-in-residence at the Alliance Theatre. Her new play, Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, will have its Atlanta premiere there this fall.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.

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