November 5, 2008 had me up earlier than normal. I needed the extra time to mentally prepare for the day’s events which consisted of getting myself downtown to the Charlotte Courthouse by 8:00am for jury duty. For this directionally challenged, suburban housewife, it was going to be no easy task. Map in hand, behind the wheel of my minivan, I headed North with the rest of the professional workforce.
After lots of confusion and aimless ventures, I manage to find the courthouse and the proper parking deck. I note ‘proper,’ because I had to pay a fee to get out of the two other incorrect one’s that I had entered by mistake. As I walked the streets of downtown Charlotte, with my North Face backpack and confused expression, I felt like a foreigner in my own city. Like an outsider looking in.
I was more settled when I found my place in line with about seventy other registered citizens. At that point, I felt less conspicuous. We were all uncertain of how the next 9 hours were going to play out, yet powerless to change or influence our station for the day.
We were herded into a very nice facility with many sections to stake our claim. I set myself up, alone in the cafe, on a very high stool. I had packed my phone, Ipod, journal, and some books to arm myself against certain boredom.
About 20 minutes into my stint, someone came over an intercom asking everyone to make their way to the center of our holding pen for a brief orientation. They put on a video that thanked us for our ‘willingness’ to participate and explained the schedule for the day. It actually made me see the bigger picture of my part in the judicial system. Even so, I hoped that I would not be picked.
As sat back down in the cafe, I noticed that I was joined by two older African-American men about my father’s age. One was a blue-collar fellow. The other, a man in a business suit. I put my i pod on ready to completely check out until I was needed. Right away, I could tell someone was addressing us again over the intercom. I took out my headphones and heard they were going to put on a movie. It was then that I noticed a TV in the cafe and several others throughout the larger rooms.
The voice announced that the morning movie was going to be The Great Debaters. I perked up a ton, for I had wanted to see this movie for months. I did not know much about it, save that it was based on a true story. I moved aside all of my equipment, leaned back in my chair, and happily put my feet up. If I had any idea of what I was going to witness, I would not have been so casual.
The film began innocently enough, telling the story of an African-American debate coach named Melvin B. Tolson. He wanted to put the black Wiley College debate team on equal footing with white colleges. But, as the movie progressed, I began to feel the tension of the plot intersecting with the setting, because this story took place in the American South during the 1930’s. A time when Jim Crow laws exsisted and lynch mobs were a real fear for African-Americans.
The movie gathered momentum as the unlikely team began to win debates and soon found themselves at the pinnacle of their season, which was a chance to compete against the national champions. The first African-Americans ever to do so.
But, one night as Melvin Tolson drives his team to a competition, they come across a lynch mob surrounding the charred body of a young African-American hanging from a tree. It was a very powerful scene. One that took my breath away and left me in shock. I watched the main characters torn between terror and shame as they dropped down into the floor boards in hiding.
I had to turn my eyes away for a moment, and it was then that I remembered that I was watching this movie with two older African-American men. Just the three of us sat in the cafe. I felt sheepish as I searched their faces. Their eyes looked straight a head. Their expressions were quiet and unmoved, as were the faces of everyone else I could see in the other rooms. I wondered if we were all watching the same movie.
The movie ends with the debate team’s final competition. An argument on Civil Disobedience against the reigning champions of Harvard, an all white institution. I do not know if this was the topic for the actual debate that took place 80 years ago. But, I do know that Wiley College won.
I know that in reality, even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they were not truly considered to belong to the debate society. African-Americans were not admitted until after World War II.
As the credits rolled, I looked up at the older man in a janitorial uniform. His eyes were brimming with tears. I felt like an intruder and tried not to stare. Then he turned to the other man and asked, “How old is you?” The man in the business suit responded, “I’m 60 years old.”
He said, “I’m 65 years old, and I remember every bit of that kind of hell.”
To which, the other replied, “Yes sir. Amen to that.”
There was a lingering quiet, but it wasn’t oppressive or unsettling to me. It was one of those moments when you are awed into silence. I thought about the night before. For the first time in our nation’s history, an African-American had been elected President of the United States. Regardless of my political stance, I sat happy in the awareness of how far we have come as a country.
It was a good day, and I was thankful for the opportunity of jury duty. For a chance to leave my normal routine. I was certain that this was the only place I could have experienced this with these two men. Though honestly, they did not notice me. Because I was merely an outsider looking in.