When I was a child my sister and I often traveled by car with my parents across America, including the Deep South. This began in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
We stayed in motels, and we used the local, self-service laundromats when we traveled. We were from one of America’s northern, rural states, known for its Scandinavian ancestry.
It was during our travels that I formed my first memory of racism in America. In either Lexington or Memphis, as a young girl I accompanied my mom to a laundromat to wash our clothes. For the first time in my life, I saw a huge sign near the back of the laundromat that read, “Colored Only.” Without the slightest hesitation, Mom read the sign, then sorted our clothes and put the “white” clothes in a washing machine in the front of the laundromat and our “colored” clothes in a washing machine in the back. We then sat down to wait for the washing machines to finish their cycles.
The other people in the laundromat stared. Some seemed to shift uncomfortably. I was used to people staring at Mom because she was exceptionally beautiful, but these stares were different.
I cannot remember if I felt threatened, but Mom’s subtle change in body language suggested she did.
A white woman approached Mom and asked, in a lovely Southern accent, what Mom was doing? The room became quiet as all other conversations fell silent, except for the sound of the washing machines and dryers. Mom smiled warmly and replied, “Washing our clothes.” The woman then asked why Mom was using a washing machine in the back of the laundromat? Mom pointed at the “Colored Only” sign and explained, “The sign says to wash our colored clothes in back.”
The Southern woman stared at Mom coldly. Then lowering her voice, she whispered to Mom, “Darlin’, that sign means colored people belong in the back — not clothes.” The woman then directed her gaze to the black women and girls at the back of the laundromat where our colored clothes were now in the spin cycle.
Mom glanced again at the sign, looked at the woman, and then smiled warmly. Having the unwelcome attention of everyone in the laundromat, Mom asked the white woman, “What color am I?” “Why, you’re white, Darlin’,” the Southern woman responded proudly. Mom smiled her loveliest smile and then asked, “Are you sure?”
As the woman turned abruptly and walked away, Mom took my arm, looked at me intently and said, “That lady is wrong. The color of our clothes is important when washing, but not the color of our skin. God loves us equally.”
I never looked at my mom the same way after that. From that moment on I realized that throughout her life Mom stood up to injustice and reflected God’s love in her own way and as best she could — even in extraordinary circumstances that may have appeared quite ordinary to others of her generation.
Mom didn’t just wash the dirt from our clothes that day in the laundromat. By her peaceful act of defiance, she helped wash some of the stain from that sign at the back of that room.
“Don’t pretend that you love others: really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of good.” (Romans 12:9)
The sign I saw over 50 years ago may no longer hang, but until we replace the hate in this country for love of one another, racial injustice and spiritual dirt will remain. It is only through love, obedience to God, and God’s mercy that we will ever become clean.
Image: Photo of 1921 sign from The Lenox, a movie theater in Augusta, Georgia. May be subject to copyright.