By Christine O'Brien
One night in the early seventies, a cross was burned on my family's front lawn. It had been a long time coming.
Several years earlier, my mother and I had served dinner to the first African-American couple to eat at the only fancy restaurant in our small, central Florida town. She and I both had African-American friends. My husband and I refused to use the white only section of the laundromat, using instead the section marked colored. But the biggest thing in town was that my sister had fallen in love with an African-American senior at the high school. The police watched our house, and Carolyn and Leo were followed everywhere. The police stopped them, threatened them with violence, and called my parents several times, supposedly to make sure they knew where their daughter was. Tension was building at the high school. The police chief asked my father to come to the station for a talk, but Daddy didn't back down. He said he had always taught us that people are equal and he couldn't go back and change it now.
At the time, my husband and I were staying with my family. Remarkably, the whole family slept through the cross-burning and awoke to find its charred remains in the front yard. We lived on a rise along the main road, so I imagine most of the townspeople saw it. We stood in the kitchen drinking coffee and considered what to do. I said that it was an honor -- not many families got crosses burned in their yards. My mother went outside, dug up a flowering vine, and planted it at the base of the cross, trailing it up and around. The cross and vine stayed there a long time, until one morning we saw that they had been torn up during the night.
My mother taught us something that day. Maybe she taught the whole town that hate and fear can be met with love, that love is a choice we make in our lives not once, but again and again.
Published in The Sun in April 1993