By Jannell McGrew
Their framed smiling faces cover the length of one of her bedroom walls.
The memories in black-and-white and some in color stare into space from a time long passed.
They are her memories, her past and what has helped shape her today. Pictures of her mother, father, her grandparents, and her friends.
And Gwen Patton remembers those days, the good and the bad. She clearly recalls the days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was just a girl when she put her hands and mind to work for a cause that took lives. She even wrote a paper on the era, a time she’ll not soon forget.
It was just months after Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Patton was aware of what had happened.
Her father, C. Robert Patton Sr., was much engaged in helping to raising money to support the boycott.
In April 1956, four months after Parks’ famous arrest, a young Gwen came to Montgomery and helped raise money.
At 12 years old, she didn’t have the right to vote, but she understood what it meant to fight for that right.
She remembers the citizenship classes her grandparents, Mary Jane Patton and Sam Patton Sr., had in their homes.
There were civic leagues all over town trying to beat back Jim Crow law. Blacks studied hard to pass literacy tests designed to keep them from registering to vote.
Patton recalls her grandmother telling her and other youngsters to ride in the back of the bus to watch the scenery.
“I never knew that I could not sit on the front of the bus,” she said.
But one day, she discovered the difference between black rights and white rights. She was in a store sitting down and a white clerk called her a “pickaninny,” a racial slur. Patton didn’t know what that word was, but she felt it was wrong, and she reacted and poured out liquid in the store.
“That was my first conscious protest,” she said with a smile.
She remember other things that were done to financially support the boycott: bake sales, little competitions like that between neighborhood women.
“It was just a little competition to help underwrite the boycott,” Patton said.
Her father also had fund-raisers and he would send tools to her grandfather, a contractor, who suffered retribution from whites who refused to do contracting business with him during the boycott.
But, Patton pointed out, reprisals did not stop their determination.
“I was convinced we were going to win,” she said.
She attended as many mass meetings as her little feet could go to. Every Monday night, she recalled, it was “Monday motivation.”
“You were truly motivated at the Monday mass meetings,” she said, describing the churches as “movement centers.”
The houses of worship were not only for solace of the spirit, Patton explained, they were disseminators of information, the hubs of strategic planning and the think-tanks of the movement.
She recalled all the walking.
“Three hundred and eighty-one days, people walked, walked with joy,” Patton said. “Over our heads, we saw freedom in the air.”
Freedom indeed came, after the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated public transportation systems.
But her grandmother, the woman who told her to ride in the back to catch the scenery, curiously enough, continued to sit in the back of the bus.
Patton was puzzled, and she confronted her matriarch about her actions, asking why she continued to ride in the back when people – when she herself – had struggled to gain the right to ride without being relegated to back of a segregated bus.
Her grandmother’s answer: She didn’t struggle just to be able to ride up front with the whites. She fought to be able to ride anywhere she wanted to on that bus or any other bus.
Patton’s back straightened with pride: “This movement was not about white people. This movement was about yourself.”