05/13/2011 06:27 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2011

Freedom Riders, by Any Other Name

Freedom Riders, who arrived in the South 50 years ago this month in the cause of civil rights, were called something else in the segregated states upon which they descended. There they were "northern agitators," outsiders coming in to stir up trouble.

At the time, I was a child growing up in Alabama. I remember friends of my parents saying, "Our black people are all right. We treat them well and they don't want trouble. But these folks come in here and put ideas in their heads. They ought to mind their own business and leave us alone."

One time I heard that Yankee troublemakers were coming in on the Greyhound bus on a particular afternoon. I was scared. On television I'd seen policemen with clubs, vicious dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham and elsewhere, and I didn't want that in my town.

For someone coming of age, it was a time of ambivalence and confusion. When the African American woman who cooked and cleaned for us baked my favorite pie, I kissed her on the cheek. My mother motioned me out of the room and said, "Don't ever do that again." I wondered why, just as I wondered why there were "Colored" and "White" water fountains at Sears, and we were told not to touch "theirs." Years later I learned that the county health department had informed Mother that we should avoid close physical contact with Pearlina because of a disease her husband had.

In high school, there were two lone and brave black students in my class, early pioneers of desegregation. I was editor of the school newspaper and a girl on the staff offered her home for our Christmas party. I went home with her after school one day to plan the event. When her mother heard us booking a band that included one of the black students, she intervened. "I will not entertain a Negro socially in my home," she said. We had the party at school instead.

When one of my friends who worked after school in a local business said "sir" to a black customer, the store manager told him never to address a black man like that. The boy, who had thought he was just being polite, went home and asked his mother what that was all about.

The more I came to understand, the more embarrassed I was by the likes of George Wallace and Lester Maddox and their representation of the South. When Wallace blocked the door to Foster Auditorium at my mother's alma mater, to prevent a black student's enrollment in the University of Alabama, I wanted to move away.

But old prejudices died hard. My parents and their contemporaries had grown up in a world where black people never went inside a white person's house except to work, and then only through a back door. They lived on their own side of town -- the poorest and drabbest side, attended their own schools and churches and scraped by in a world filled with injustice and devoid of opportunity. That's just how it was.

Black people did yard work for white people, who gave them drinks of water and then boiled the glasses they drank from. Black people cooked our food. We shared it with them, but not at the same table. It's shameful to think of now. They ate after we finished and after they cleaned up after us. Then they took home leftovers, and hand-me-down clothes. That was how the system worked. Well-meaning white people thought they'd done what they could.

Thankfully, a few courageous souls were determined to do the right thing, despite the culture. In Georgia, Miss Lillian Carter, President Carter's mother, a nurse, entered the houses of sick black sharecroppers to treat them even though society dictated that she stay out.

Every attempt to change what had become the natural order led to new struggles. When our town closed the tiny library designated for people of color and opened the main city library to everyone, a different problem arose. Jim Crow laws dictated that blacks and whites use different restrooms, and the library had only one. The solution: lock the restroom so nobody could use it.

Whatever equality exists in the South today was hard-won. A firmly established, albeit unfair, world was yanked at the roots and turned upside down. White people who thought they were generous and kind ran smack into a wall that challenged everything they'd ever believed. Gradually, the world became less black and white.

But who knows how long it might have taken even small changes to occur without the intervention of outsiders -- those who stepped off the bus with a different experience, a different way of thinking, a different worldview and who, indeed, stirred up quite a lot of trouble.