SELMA, Alabama — The Rolen School sits in the dirt off United States Highway 80 in Lowndes County, Alabama. It is a public school of the State of Alabama for grades one to six. It has eighty Negro students and three Negro teachers. It is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., but from the road it looks like a deserted shack.
The Rolen School is a wooden building that was a church when people in Lowndes County wore Confederate uniforms. It once was painted yellow. The building sits off the ground on small piles of loose red bricks. It has ten frame windows. Nearly all the panes are broken. Beaverboard, put up on the inside, covers the broken windows. The school has a tin roof. Yesterday part of the roof was flapping in the breeze coming through the fields. In the winter the wind comes strong and keeps blowing parts of the roof away and the students sit in class under the cold sky.
A shack in the dirt field behind the school serves as a bathroom. There is a small coal bin on the side of the school. A tin basin, used by students for carrying coal inside to the pot-bellied stoves, is on the ground next to the bin. A long-handled ax stands against the building. The students gather wood at lunchtime and chop it for the fires inside. The school has a church entrance, with five wooden steps leading up from the dirt. The steps are rotted and an adult cannot stand on them.
The principal, John Bowen, who also teaches the fifth and sixth grades, stood outside the school yesterday. He is forty and has gray-topped hair. He wore a long-sleeved dark blue sports shirt. His arms were folded in front of him and he spoke quietly.
“Nobody is allowed inside the school without a permit, we were told,” he said.
“When did they tell you this?”
“Well, when all the people started coming around here they told me that.”
“I see. They don’t want us to get a look at the place.”
“Well,” he said, “I work for the county school system. You shouldn’t work for a person, then give him bad publicity. But I have to say you can’t learn in this school. There’s no way to learn here. It’s just impossible.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go into your school without this permit.”
The inside of the school was divided into three rooms. The first and second grades were in the room on the left. There were eleven small black faces with big eyes sitting on benches around a wooden picnic table. A girl was on her stomach on another bench, looking up at the visitor. The teacher, Josephine Jackson, wearing a pink dress, sat at a bridge table in the corner, next to a big rusted stove.
Beaverboard covers the classroom window, but light comes in through large holes in the side of the building. The holes give the kids a view of the fields. The kids also can look through a huge hole in the floor and see coal ashes and empty pork-and-beans cans on the ground under the classroom.
“We use coal when we can get it, and wood in the winter,” Miss Jackson was saying. “It run to, oh, ’bout twenty-five degrees here in the winter. We hardly ever get near zero. The children wear hair rags and overcoats. They don’t have gloves. When it gets too cold they sit with their hands in the coat pockets.”
“Can you get anything done here at all?”
“Well, I try as hard as I can.”
“Do the parents know what’s going on?”
“Oh, I don’t think they understand, either,” she said. “They went to the same kind of school as this and these children here will have to send their children to a school like this and, oh, I guess it never will come to an end.”
The kids sat at the table and watched with big eyes. One girl put her head on the table and looked up, a finger stuck in her mouth.
Arthur Lee Williams, in overalls, red shirt, and sneakers, looked up, turned around, and looked at the visitor. Then he mumbled something and broke into a giggle and buried his face in the shoulder of the kid next to him.
“What’d you say?”
The kid next to him answered. “He say, ‘Stop there, little preacher.’”
This should have been a big laugh, but there is nothing funny in the idea that any white man who would visit that school would have to be a minister.
Arthur had a torn, thumbed workbook in front of him. There was scrawling all through it. There was not one legible letter on page after page of scrawling.
“Do you have a bright one?” Miss Jackson was asked.
“That one,” she said, pointing to a little girl in pigtails and white sweater.
The top of the girl’s workbook said her name was Janice Cosby. On the first page she had printed, “See the kitten. The kitten says mew mew.” It was neatly done.
“Do you like school?” she was asked.
Her eyes brightened and her head shook up and down. “Yop,” she said.
“Do you do any writing at home?”
“Yop. In the back yard when I get home.”
“Would you want to write something for me now?”
She grinned and picked up a pencil and, carefully, and neatly, and proudly, she printed, “Sunday is the day before Monday.”
“That’s very good,” she was told. She beamed and began printing something else.
“What does her father do?” the teacher was asked.
“And what happens to the girl here?”
“When she gets old enough, she goes into the field and picks cotton and doesn’t come to school any more.”
A door with cardboard panels led to the next classroom, which was for the third and fourth grades. A Coca-Cola machine was in one corner of the room. A big blue metal gas-station sign, “Firestone Tires, the mark of quality,” was nailed over a hole in the floor in the middle of the room. Old Alabama license plates were nailed here and there around the room to cover other holes in the floor.
A heavy woman in a striped dress stood against the wall and watched the seventeen students, who sat on benches and did nothing. She said her name was Lillian Pierce and that she was sixty.
“I been teachin’ around between twenty-eight and thirty-nine years in this county,” she said.
“Where did you go to school?”
“I went to schools right in this county,” she said.
“This is awful,” she was told.
“Awful?” she said. She looked surprised. She didn’t understand.
The fifth and sixth grades were in the back room, a big bare place with cement blocks and pieces of charred firewood lying on the floor. A kid in a raincoat was hammering a nail into a bench that was falling apart. A small cluttered table, with an old blue globe on it, was in the front of the room. There were no blackboards or charts hanging on the wooden walls.
Seven or eight boys sat on the other benches, doing nothing. Two girls were standing at a door leading out to the back of the school. One boy, in a blue shirt with ripped shoulders, leaned against the wall in the other corner of the room.
“What grade are you in?” he was asked.
“How old are you?”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“What I want to do? I want to wait. Wait on tables.”
“Is that a good job?”
He smiled. “Oh, my father he say that a very good job.”
The books were on a shelf behind him. The flyleaves all carried the stamp: “This book is the property of the State of Alabama, County of Lowndes.”
The books consisted of a Bobbs-Merrill reader put out in 1939, a book called Conrad’s Magic Flight, also put out in 1939, and an arithmetic book whose title page was ripped so that its publication year could not be determined. But its approach to arithmetic was in the same small print, with no visuals, which the visitor remembered seeing in about 1939.
A hand bell tinkled in the next room and kids walked out the door into the yard. It was lunchtime. Most of them stood in the dirt or went in front of the building and sat on the top step. None of them had anything with them to eat.
“Hey,” one of them was asked, “don’t you have anything for lunch?”
He shook his head yes. “Light bread and hot sauce. I eat it on the way to school.”
“Don’t they get any lunch to bring?” Bowen was asked. He shrugged. He could see the visitor did not understand Lowndes County, Alabama.
A little one sitting alone on the step watched the visitor carefully. The kid had on a sweatshirt with red lettering: “Four Seasons C.C.” The shirt had not been washed in a long time. His dungaree pants had holes at the knees. There were no tongues in his little brown boots. His bare feet showed through the laces.
“What’s your name?” he was asked.
His eyes narrowed and he moved his mouth. “Uh,” he said.
“What did you say?”
His lips shook and he gurgled something again.
“He Akin Grant,” one of the other kids yelled over. “Let him say it himself. Come on, now, what’s your name?”
The little kid’s eyes narrowed and his lips moved and he tried to talk. And then his eyes filled and he sat there afraid, and crying, and then you could see that he had something the matter with his mouth and that he could not form words.
The visitor started to put his hands on the kid’s shoulders, but the kid got up and ran, crying, over to the side of the porch and jumped off and went back behind the school.
“How much of this do you have?” Bowen, the principal, was asked. “This kid needs help. What is this, letting him come here like this?”
“I don’t know how much of anything we have,” Bowen said. “What do we call normal? How do we measure what is normal and what isn’t when he have a situation like this? They’re all so far down here. They don’t have any hope particularly. The school building is here and a couple of teachers is provided. Then nobody cares whether these kids come or not. It don’t matter. School for these kids is just a period between childhood and growin’ up and workin’ in the fields.”
The lunch period ended and Bowen said good-by and went back into school with these little children who are being brought up as semi-human beings.
The visitor to the Rolen School got into the car and drove out onto the highway and back to Montgomery. The marchers were by the airport now, and the line was long, numbering in the thousands, and the people walked along and clapped hands and sang. They marched in the sun because of things like the Rolen School, which stands for every step of every foot which has touched United States Highway 80 this week.
But farther up the road, the sunglasses-wearing state police stood by their cars and they sang, “The niggers are coming,” and the white people standing on the sidewalk laughed. And in downtown Montgomery the great Tony Bennett, here to entertain the marchers, was told not to go out on the streets because everybody is mad about his being here and he is liable to get hurt. And in the State Capitol, which sits under a flagpole that has the Confederate flag flying over the American flag, the legislature yesterday passed a special resolution condemning the ministers who are in the civil rights march and calling attention to all “the fornicating” going on among the marchers. And the Governor of the State of Alabama, which, in the year 1965, in the United States of America, has the Rolen School as part of its great educational system, sits in his office and says he is not going to give in to this mob rule of Communists.