“Don’t Tell” by Donna Thomas

I don’t know why the memory has started to surface after all this time. But it’s here and grows stronger and stronger each day. I also don’t know why I never told anyone. It just seemed easier to tuck the incident neatly away in the trunk of “don’t-tell” memories, lock it and lose the key.

Friday, September 4, 1970, my sixteenth birthday. My mother was taking me to get my driver’s license. I was so excited. I no longer had to look at my brother’s sullen face when Momma made him take me to school events or to visit my friends. By the end of the day, I would be able to do these things for myself. Of course Momma had already informed me I would have to take my little sister along. That was OK, as long as I got my driver’s license in return.

The day was hot. Summer showed no signs of surrendering to fall. The sky was clear and bright blue. I can’t recall what the air smelled like, but I chose to remember the scent of freshness seeping from the ground after a summer rain. I wore my fitted bell-bottom blue jeans and a short-sleeveless-waist-length top with a vee-neck. My mother wore a pair of not tight but fitted pants, and she also wore a sleeveless top. I think hers was a vee-neck also. I remember how young and pretty she looked that day. She was so excited for me. I would be the first girl in the family to get her license at sixteen. My mother and my aunts didn’t get theirs until they were in their twenties. And my cousin who was one year older still didn’t have hers.

Back in 1970 you went to Kelley Ingram Park, the center for Civil Rights congregations, to take the road test. You parked your car along Sixteenth Street and waited for a police officer or a pig, the name for police officers in those days, to take you for the road test. I had passed the written test on the first try. This also made my momma proud. Back then, little things made Negro parents proud since the city of Birmingham was fresh from it’s failed resistance of civil rights.

I remember his uniform was khaki colored. A silver badge was pinned on the left side of his shirt. He was a large-bellied, tall, red-complexioned man with close-cropped blond hair. His face was round. However, there were pockets of flesh protruding from the circle. His lips were thin, almost none existent; and his eyes were slight and dark blue. His small pudgy nose was perfectly centered. In the left hand he carried a clipboard with some papers attached, and in the right he carried a pencil. I heard my name called, “Deena Gossett.” I raised my hand.

The pig came toward Momma and me. He told me he would be giving me my test today. Mother pointed to our 1965 lavender Chevy Impala. I left the safety zone beside my momma and went with him. When we were secured in the car, I was instructed to make a u-turn and drive the few feet to our starting point, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As soon as we were safely away from my mother and the group of other young hopefuls waiting to take the test, he started.

“Drive to the next intersection and make a right.” His voice was firm and direct.

I did as I was instructed.

“Keep driving, I’ll tell you when to turn.” Then his voice changed to friendly and familiar.

“Now tell me young lady, do you have a boyfriend?” I smiled and said. “No sir.”

“I bet a pretty girl like you has a boyfriend?” I assumed he wanted to calm my nerves.

He probably used the “boyfriend” line with all the girls.

“No sir.” I replied.

“Turn right at the next intersection. Do you let him touch you?”


“Do you let him touch your breast?” I don’t recall taking my eyes off the road; however, I must have.

“Don’t look at me. Keep your eyes on the road. Make a left at the light”

I kept driving, doing as I was told.

“Do you let him touch you between your legs?” His voice was now suggestive and condescending. The joy of getting my license exited the opened windows of the car and bolted through the shotgun houses that lined the driving trail. Into the car came a thief not only taking my joy, but also my youthful innocence. I was sixteen-years-old, still a virgin, and knew nothing of sex. My mother hadn’t told me about what happens between a girl and a boy. Momma was a strict Catholic. She raised me to be a strict Catholic. To her, sex came after marriage. I still had the once-upon-a-time, love-ever-after idea of romance and sex. The pig sitting next to me was definitely not Prince Charming.

As filth poured from his mouth, he continued to make marks on his pad. He looked straight ahead so that to anyone watching all seemed normal.

“Do you let him lick you? I bet you do?”

Just don’t touch me. Please God, don’t let him touch me. Hail Mary, full of grace

Then he instructed me that it was now time to parallel park. That meant looking in his direction. I had to acknowledge him. I had to look right into the face of my robber. I tried to look past him and concentrate on parking the car. However, I still could see his clammy red tongue slide throw his lips and ease from side to side. The devil blue of his eyes roamed my breast and hips like a hungry animal. He took every advantage of our eye contact to spew sewage. “You sure are pretty. Boys like to do it with pretty girls. Do you let him do it to you?”

When I finished parallel parking we sat for what seemed like hours, although I’m sure it was only seconds. The pig continued to spill garbage. I continued to look straight ahead. I guess when he realized he wasn’t going to get a reaction from me: I wasn’t going to cry, I wasn’t going to act shocked, (at least not visibly), I wasn’t going to curse, and I surely wasn’t going to give him any encouragement; he instructed me to return to Kelly Ingram Park.

I saw my mother as we approached the end of the test. She was smiling and waiting for me. Nothing seemed out of the normal. Mr. Pig was good at what he did. I got out of the car and quickly returned to the safety zone beside my mother. The pig got out of the car and told my mother I was a good driver. He awarded me my license.

I had just driven the path where Dr. King had marched for our freedom. Where a church had been bombed. Where four little Negro girls had died. Where water hoses and dogs had been unleashed on Negroes who fought for our civil rights. Where I had been violated as if none of it mattered.

I graduated from John Carroll Catholic High School. I went to Auburn University. I married my college sweetheart. I raised two children. I watched my mother die of cancer. I divorced after thirty-four years of marriage. And I never told.

Thirty-nine years later, my sister and I were having a “remember when” conversation. I don’t know why. I really don’t. But the memory unlocked itself, escaped from the trunk and spilled from my mouth like sour vomit. It was out! It was finally being told. My sister was so angry. Not with the pig, she was angry with me.

“Why didn’t you tell?”

“I don’t know.”

“You should have told someone. You don’t keep stuff like that.”

“I saw Momma. She was so happy and proud.”

“Deena, you can’t protect everybody.”

“I know. I think I’m finally learning that lesson. But what were they going to do? We were fresh from civil rights. It was a white policeman. No one would have believed me. Daddy was already having a hard time on his job for marching and picketing. ”

“You still should have told.”

But I didn’t.

I honestly don’t remember if he touched me. That memory is still buried deep inside my subconscious, and I don’t think I ever want it to surface.

I did what most girls did back then and what most girls continue to do today when they are raped verbally or physically.

Don’t tell.

Donna Gossom Thomas, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, has a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She is a retired telecommunications worker chasing her dream. Her work has appeared in The Birmingham Newsand PMS magazine. 

“Soul Trail” by Craig Legg

I grew up in Birmingham in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, though it is important to remember that it wasn’t called that then. I was roughly the same age as the four little girls killed in the infamous Sixteenth Street Church bombing. I watched the aftermath on teevee in my safe and secure house in the burbs same as some kid from New York or California. I was too busy growing up, going to school, and playing ball to pay attention to what had gone on in Birmingham before September 15, 1963, but this bombing certainly got my attention.

Spring of ’63 had seen the equally infamous demonstrations in downtown Birmingham featuring police dogs and fire hoses. The main effect of these demonstrations upon myself, sibs, and friends was that our parents no longer would allow us to go downtown Saturday mornings to the movies shown at local theaters such as the Melba, Empire, Ritz, Strand, and of course the grand ole  Alabama, Showplace of the South. We kids sure hoped the adults would get this ‘civil rights’ business settled soon so we could get back to the movies. Heck, it didn’t seem that hard to me. In both school and church we were taught that all people were equal. Seemed a no-brainer. The Birmingham newspapers didn’t make a big deal of it. Doing research years later, I was astounded to discover that many of the historic demonstrations hadn’t even made the front page, taking a back seat to the seemingly more important big picture of the Red Menace. The Cuban missile crisis had taken the world to the nuclear brink several months earlier, October 1962.

Of course Birmingham was strictly segregated then. The only black person I had direct contact with was my mother’s maid, who came once a week, via the city bus. It must have been truly a shadow world in which these maids lived and worked, not that I remember giving it much thought. Too busy growing up.

The main contact I had with black culture came through the radio. A couple of years earlier I had discovered rock & roll and its forerunner, rhythm & blues. The white AM stations in B’ham were pretty cool back then, spinning lotsa Sam & Dave, Otis & James, Motown & Stax/Volt, in between records by white artists. It didn’t take long to realize that most of my favorite hits were by blacks. But there seemed to exist a fuzzy cut-off point where the white stations wouldn’t play records that sounded too ‘black.’ They would play John Lee Hooker but not Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. They would play Chuck & Bo but not Elmore James. They censored Hank Ballard when he sang the Annie series. To hear this stuff we had to tune in to the black stations, WJLD and WENN. Here I was transported to an entirely new world, featuring classic R&B disc jockeys–all with poetic nicknames–Shelley the Playboy Stewart, Tall Paul White, Wee Willie McKinstry, Sam Double O Moore. These guys rocked my early teenage world, right in the midst of the historic civil rights’ strife. I didn’t know then that the jocks were also playing an important part in the demonstrations, by secret code transmitting demonstration times and places to their foot-soldier listeners.

There was so much I neither knew nor understood. Children are raised to accept, not to question. But rock & roll seethed with rebellion, even in original AM days, and through it I was learning to question. When my dad drove us on family vacations to Missouri and we passed through Mississippi and Tennessee I questioned the billboards we would see depicting ‘Martin Luther King in Communist Training School.’ When we’d get stopped by cops in St. Louis for no reason, I questioned why (Alabama license plates). Back in Birmingham, when all of a sudden we left our church to begin attending another, I questioned why. I was told that the new one was ‘closer’ to our home, but I later learned that the pastor of the first had said he would integrate, thus was voted out by the congregation. Ergo my folks left that church in the lurch and found another. My folks were border staters from Missouri, not into the Old South values of Big Seg.

Indeed, it was the religious aspect of the civil rights struggle that impressed me. If there really was a God then surely he was on the side of the blacks, who had righteousness in spades (har! a pun- pardon the racism). As the great Flip would say, “the devil made me do it!” Speaking of which, back to the so-called devil’s music of rock & roll in which, personally, I was more interested than in going to church.

At Homewood Junior High, located on the south slope of Red Mountain, our coaches used to make us run a trail up the side of the mountain after school during springtime, to keep us in shape for football season. The trail led to the radio station signal towers located atop the mountain, and one day me and some buddies ran up there and were pleasantly surprised to literally run right into the WJLD tower, a bit farther down from the white station towers. We tiptoed up to the small shack at the base of the tower and could hear the station’s music playing from a small speaker. We wanted to knock on the door but were afraid. We wondered if this might be the actual studio. I was excited that it could be…that we might get to see Shelley the Playboy or one of the other deejays in action.

BOOM! came a voice. “What chu all boys doin’ here?”

Seemingly out of nowhere this huge guy appeared behind us, almost like he was coming out of the woods. “We…uh…we were out running the trail, Sir…and we heard the music…”

“You boys like this music?”

“Yes Sir!”

That’s all of the conversation I can remember. Somehow we found our voices and were able to explain to the man that we were R&B fans and listened to the station sometimes. He seemed to get a kick out of this and introduced himself as an employee of the station, though not a deejay. But he offered to call the station and let us talk to the on-air jock, Sam Double O Moore.

“Really? We can talk to him?”

“You bet. It’s a few minutes after three o’clock, school check-in time.

Just tell him where you go to school and he’ll announce it on air…”

“Holy cow…”

We were all nervous, but my friend Garnett had the balls to do it, so he did the talking. When Mr. Moore asked if Homewood had a good football team, Garnett said “sure, we were number one in the county last year!”

“Ah, but that’s cuz you don’t play the black schools,” said Sam, “iffin’ you did you’d get that little ole number one knocked upside yo head…”

Which in time proved to be true…but that’s another story.

We couldn’t stay too long, as our coaches kept track, and would punish us for goofing off if we weren’t back by a certain time. So down the mountain we trekked that afternoon, happy as pigs in a poke that we had discovered the WJLD signal tower. It made us love the music even more, and we felt like real cool cats. It was 1964 and the British Invasion was in full-tilt boogie, with the Rolling Stones rumored to be bringing their American blues-based rock & roll to Birmingham on a fall tour of the States. If so, Garnett and I certainly would make the scene. We would have to get one of our parents to drive us, as we were still a couple of long years away from getting a driver’s license, the second-most ultimate dream of a teenager (one guess as to the first).

When that glorious day came (the drivers’ license, not the other) we could start driving ourselves downtown to the City (later Boutwell) Auditorium to see the Soul Review Shows we heard advertised on WJLD and WENN, starring Otis Redding & the Barkays, James Brown & the Famous Flames, the Wicked Pickett, Smokey & the Miracles, and whoever else might be on the bill. I had heard about these shows and had seen the posters but in ’64 I was still a couple of years away from attending one.

They are germane to this story though, so pardon me if I skip ahead and get right to it. I got my driver’s license in 1966 as a sophomore in high school and began attending the soul reviews. Usually there would be a small handful of white teenagers in attendance, but the audiences were 99% black. We never had any trouble. Indeed, the blacks seemed tickled to see us, amazed that we liked their music. Some even offered us shots of whiskey from pocket flasks. The shows themselves were nothing short of amazing, often six or seven acts on the bill- the action leading up to the headliners a veritable crescendo of rhythm & blues energy.

Our own little personal histories wouldn’t make news, of course. Hell, we might have been just a bunch of teenaged white boys, but at least we had already figured out what we wanted to be when we grew up- we wanted to be Soul Men!


“Hold on, I’m Comin’…”

That was Birmingham, just a few short years after the historic demonstrations, when the whole world was watching…all that other stuff.

Craig Legg lives and writes in Hooverville, Alabama, where he is writer-in-residence at his house.