By Markus Williams
Every victory comes in time work today to change tomorrow because to fulfill your life’s purpose you must answer when you’re called. On June 19, 1941 Mamie King-Chalmers joined the symphony of voices on this earth. Decades later that voice would become a voice of change.
As a little girl she was not allowed to go into the library and check out books. She vowed that when she got older she would own her very own library. Mamie King Chalmers has never owned a library but at 75 years of age she has her rightful place as a subject in every library in the country.
Living in Birmingham Alabama she was one of five children in a very interconnected family. In addition to her parents her grandparents played a very important role in shaping her young life. Her father was not able to go to school so he never learned to read. Mamie and her siblings taught him to read and in turn he taught them how to read white people and her grandparents taught them how to pay attention to white people. Failure to learn any of these lessons could result in your life being taken with remarkable ease.
She recalls visits to the store as a child when they were in need of shoes and clothes. It was a peculiar experience for her 5 & 6 year old mind. They were taught to walk in the middle of the isle with their hands visible being careful not to look suspicious. It did not take much for an accusation to be made. They were not allowed to try on shoes, instead, a string was used to measure their length and no attention was given to width. Likewise, trying on of clothes was forbidden and all sales were final because there could be no returns.
At the age of sixteen she was cast in the familiar role of domestic help. She got a job working for Mary Malone and she was to be paid two dollars a day plus lunch. On her first day she arrived at work and she immediately noticed Mary Malone making soup. She continued to work diligently in the house all morning she smelled the soup simmering, it smelled good and she looked forward to lunch. When it was time for lunch she did not see a bowl of soup awaiting her enjoyment so she asked, “where is my lunch”? Mary Malone escorted her to the garage and pointed to a spot in the corner. Mamie looked in the direction she pointed and her eyes fell upon a setting not fit for human consumption. It was a cracked and dirty plate, a rusty spoon, a can of pork-n-beans and a dirty glass of kool-aid. Mamie said “I can’t eat that” “yes you will because you don’t have anything else to eat.” “I might have nothing else to eat but I can’t eat that.” They stared at each other for a while both knowing the potential price of disrespect. Mamie decided it would be best if she left so she asked to be paid for the work she had done that day. Mary Malone took 35 cents from her apron and Mamie left her house never to do domestic work again.
The civil rights movement was not in full force at the time but they heard of efforts to register blacks to vote in Mississippi but nothing like that was happening in Alabama. One day they heard of a man named Martin Luther King coming to town. They had heard good things about him and they were fascinated that he shared their last name. Martin Luther King was to speak at the 16 Street Baptist Church and they decided they would go to hear him. This was a few months before the church would be bombed killing four little girls. For over a month King spoke about civil rights about things that we as black people don’t have to take anymore. Some nights he was not present to speak because he had been arrested but upon his release he would be right back in the pulpit rallying for justice.
During this time Mamie decided that she would get involved with the Sothern Christian Leadership Conference and even though she was young she was prepared to go out in the streets to march and
protest. They were encouraged to go through training and King told them you might get kicked, you might get spit on you might get hurt and you might get killed so you must be prepared to sacrifice. She had experienced racial injustice all her life and she had seen how the debilitating effects could carry on from one generation to the next. It was time for a change and she was to be a part of it. It was May of 1963 and Mamie was about to have her first encounter with the law. She along with hundreds of young kids were all fired up ready to practice their non-violent tactics that they had been taught. She went to the Bohemian Bakery, a place that did not serve black people. She attempted to be served at the counter and the police were called and she was taken to jail. She says it was one of the worst experiences of her life but when she got out of jail five days later she continued with the protest. This time she found herself in Kelly Ingram Park along with hundreds of other young people all participating in non-violent protest. This angered Governor Eugene Wallace who famously prophesied “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever”. He demanded that law enforcement do something. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used police dogs to intimidate the young people, but they kept marching. He ordered the fire department to spray them with the high powered water hose so they would not have to take a bath. As the water hose rained the fullness of it’s furry she was standing in the company of two other young men who attempted to shield her, the force pushed them all against the wall and it blew out her ear drum. To this day she is deaf in her right ear and her actions that day have been documented by photo journalist for the entire world to see. She believes that all lives are important and that all people should be treated equally just because they are human beings.
We celebrate you this evening Mamie Chalmers for helping to weave the fabric of a movement that would eventually cover us all. At great cost to yourself you are a voice of change.