by J.P. Johnson
If it wasn’t for Country singer Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit, “Okie from Muskogee,” most of us would never have heard of the place.
During World War Two, the nearest town to Camp Gruber was Muskogee, Oklahoma. My dad, a Staff Sergeant in the Army, was stationed there a short time and was in charge of the motor pool. He was accompanied to Oklahoma by my mom and my brother, Dennie, who was a year old at the time.
Even with Muskogee’s housing shortage, they had found a duplex and rented the upstairs.
The story, or incident, of what happened in Muskogee on a steamy, summer day in 1943, was told to me many times by my mom and corroborated by my dad, albeit from a different perspective.
She, along with my brother, had boarded a city bus, crowded with townsfolk and soldiers. There was one seat left toward the front. She took it and held my brother on her lap. A little farther along, the bus stopped to pick up a young, pregnant African American woman, or “colored gal,” as they said back then.
The woman had no place to sit until my mom stood and offered to give up her seat. The woman gratefully accepted, to the audible gasps of the rest of the passengers. The driver paused for a long time, looked back and gave my mom a baleful glare, along with the other white people on board.
Of course my white, Yankee mom was deliberately disregarding the “Jim Crow” laws which relegated blacks, in all cases, to the back of the bus. She got away with what many Southerners would consider a crime; not just a social faux pas.
At the time, Jim Crow was the law of the land, supported by the “Separate but Equal” doctrine which had been cheerfully upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in countless appeals. This was racial segregation, Southern style.
When my mom told my dad what had happened, he blew his cork.
“Ruth, don’t you understand? I’m in the Army!”
“So are a lot of other men. What are you saying?”
“I’m sayin’… and don’t you tell our busy-body landlady or anybody else… I’m sayin’ I’ll probably get hauled in front of the Provost Marshal and tossed in the stockade. I’ll be wearin’ a ‘P’ on my back for the rest of the war!”
“You’re exaggerating, Don. Besides, I did what Mrs. Roosevelt would’ve done; which is the right thing.”
“You’re not Mrs. Roosevelt! Look, you know and I know you did the right thing, but things are different down here. You just better lay low ‘til this thing blows over, or we’re gonna have more trouble than we can handle.”
About a decade later, Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.