Mom’s trip to the drinking fountain

Posted: August 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

colored drinking fountainI was out on a walk through town today when I ran into a friend doing the same thing. We chatted for a while, especially telling stories of where and how we grew up. He was a rural boy, living far outside the central Missouri county seat of Fulton. For Missourians, we know this area along the Missouri river as “Little Dixie” and Fulton is in its epicenter, in the “Kingdom of Callaway.” Fulton was founded in 1820, a year before Missouri’s statehood.

Virtually all of the towns along the Missouri River were slaveholder towns. They trucked in cash crops like tobacco and hemp, worked by slaves, and then sent them down river. After emancipation the economies of those farms and plantations fell on hard times. Though freed men and women often worked for wages at those very same farms later, they often had an indentured status, a new kind of slavery.

During the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, characterized by unequal rights such as the right to vote. And for people like my friend whose childhood took place near Fulton, Missouri in the 1950s, segregation was on parade.

His mother, however, was engaged in her own civil rights movement long before its time. In the midst of segregation, rank discrimination and the barely concealed presence of the KKK, she protested in her own way. Like when it came to public drinking fountains, for example.

My friend told me that one of his earliest memories, perhaps when he was as young as Kindergarten, was of his mother marching her five children to the dual drinking fountains near the court house which were marked “white” and “colored” and lined up her brood to get long drinks from the “colored” fountain. This was in clear and dramatic sight of all the town’s people gathered at the court house. It was her protest. In the words of John Lewis, she was making “good trouble.”

The judge at the courthouse was a straight shooter, morally unwavering in his judgments and sentences. When he got wind that certain members of the Fulton community were threatening to go out to this woman’s house and vandalize or burn it, the judge came out into the common area of the courthouse, summoned the attention of all who were near, and made a statement:

“I want you to know that if I have the slightest reason to suspect that anyone has done harm to this woman or her property, I will arrest, charge and lock them up for eternity.” Evidently that threat did the trick. Nothing happened to my friend’s mother, family or property.

According to my friend, he ran into this same judge later in life, when he was a young man. The judge told him how much he respected his mother, that she was a courageous woman ahead of her time.

So she was. And he was a judge ahead of his time.

That’s what it takes – a moral sense that rises above the crowd, the courage to stand out and take a stand, and a community that resists the injustice in front of our own faces. And it starts by showing our children what is and is not moral and how to be a part of the solution when doing so is hard and sometimes risky.


  1. Gloria says:

    Beautiful, Tim. We need all of these stories now . . . they give us hope for the future and evidence of strength and courage. So glad you were out walking and talking . . .

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