To feed my appetite for knowledge, Daddy began driving me to the city every week to check out books from the library—a simple act that changed my life. The 50-minute round trip provided a refuge and bound us more closely. We sometimes drove past the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had once been pastor, and the spot where Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.
Daddy never talked much about that, or about his role ferrying bus boycotters to and from the city for 381 consecutive days, but he called them “our heroes” who, despite being ordinary people, found the strength to be courageous.
Daddy kept the faith despite the prejudice he had encountered. He seemed never to divide the world into black and white—good and bad—his conscience was too large, his heart too generous.
By my childish standards, the old Montgomery Public Library downtown rivaled the great Library of Alexandria. It was a magnificent cathedral of information. I never knew what unusual fact, what teasing photograph, whose quaint story I might stumble onto. I’d begin in the poetry section and select armloads of books, often to the librarians’ whispers: “There’s the Motley boy.” They knew I had a mental map of the shelves.
One Saturday, after rambling about, I found my way back to my table on the main floor. My eyes were drawn from the page to an older, fragile-looking white man at a table across from me. He was in a wheelchair, with a black attendant at his side. He moved delicately. With bright, piercing eyes hooded by heavy brows, he struck me as a man bearing heavy burdens.
I returned to reading. But sneaking a glance now and then, I’d find Wheelchair Man flipping pages casually. Our eyes met awkwardly several times. I knew him from somewhere! Once, nodding, as if to say, “Good day,” he seemed as curious about me as I was about him. As closing time approached, a silence added a reverential quality to the nonverbal rapport that had developed between the Wheelchair Man and me. Suddenly I knew.
As I gathered my books and walked to the circulation desk, we nodded—a parting benediction. I was so eager to tell Daddy, I took the stairs two at a time, and headed to the car, where he’d been waiting for two hours. I opened the door to his usual questions—“What have you been up to in there? Find any good books today? Any Robert Frost?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
I laid my satchel on the rear seat and blurted out, “You’ll never guess who was in the library; who kept looking at me today.” Daddy managed a dramatic pause before asking, “Someone special?”
“Yes, sir,” I said emphatically. “It was Governor George Wallace!”
“Do you mean the George Wallace?” he asked. “Isn’t that something? You just came face to face with one of the most notorious former segregationists in the country.”
“Some people believe he learned that he had to get the support of black voters to win elections,” Daddy said. “But I think he changed his mind about black people after a gunman tried to assassinate him in 1972 … It put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and made him understand suffering for the first time.”
“Do you realize,” Daddy asked, “that if you’d been born 10 years earlier, at the start of Wallace’s first term, you wouldn’t even be allowed in this library? Now, you can sit at the same table with him. Sometimes justice comes slowly, but it always comes.”
Deep within Daddy was this abiding conviction that we are saved by hope. He didn’t erupt into a diatribe about a former segregationist or gloat over the fact that Wallace came to suffer. Instead, he used the occasion to celebrate the fact that now I could freely use the same library from which Wallace would have banned me.
As I came to adopt that same hope, my grandparents’ dream for me to go to college became my mission.