“It’s time for Mattie to share her story with the world,” says Gratia Lousma. Mattie King, eighty-seven, moved to Ann Arbor from North Carolina in 1950, escaping the humiliations of Jim Crow. Gratia was just thirteen when they met as neighbors on Joy Road. They kept in touch during the years when Gratia was moving around the country with her astronaut husband, Jack, and have seen each other often since the Lousmas returned to Ann Arbor (they now live in Scio Township).
It was at their urging that King first wrote about her experience in the segregated South as the daughter of a sharecropper. “Daddy and the others workers picked cotton,” King writes, “while I picked the rocks so that the horses wouldn’t hurt their hooves when they pulled up the wagons that collected the harvest.” At church on Sundays, “Our tired bones sat on those hard seats as if they were wax on a hot day, but hearing the word of the Lord and songs of His goodness made our hearts dance, too . . .”
In the 1950s, with the names of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks on everyone’s lips, King wanted to find her own way to make a difference–to be “counted among the faithful, not just the outwardly brave.” Her moment came unexpectedly, on a bus trip back to North Carolina to visit her sister.
All the seats were filled when a blind white man got on. He banged his thick cane as he shuffled down the aisle. The white passengers at the front of the bus, King recalls, looked away from him as if he could see them. None offered him a seat.
“Who will show this man mercy?” King wondered as he moved toward the back of the bus, where she and the other black passengers sat. Though dizzy with fear, she forced herself to stand up. “From somewhere inside my shaky self,” she writes, she heard a “quiet, steady voice say, ‘Mister, you sit here.’”
The man “didn’t move, as if he didn’t hear me,” King writes. “But the rest of the people on the bus including the bus driver were staring at me . . . I grabbed his long shirt sleeve before the bus could start and gently pulled him into the place where I had been sitting . . . I looked up and every eye was on me.
“Suddenly, three white men jumped out of their seats like popcorn on a hot stove. ‘You sit here, ma’am.’ ‘You can have my seat.’ ‘Sit here, Miss.’ I still remember the surprised looks on their faces . . . that so many of them had the same idea to give up their seat to a black girl at the same time.”
At this distance in time, King doesn’t recall whether or not she took the seat, and she doesn’t think it matters. “I stood up for what was right,” she says, “much the same way others had sat down in protest.
“My time had come.”