Selected Excerpts from Book
Chapter 3: Others at the Counter
Excerpt: Memphis Norman’s Early Life
By the time the camera clicked the now-famous photograph, he was already absent from the scene, no longer quietly sitting hunched over the lunch counter between the two classmates he had accompanied there. He had become the demonstration’s first casualty—the first to shed blood for what was escalating into a war in the Magnolia State’s capital city.
Memphis Norman traveled a road of extreme deprivation to voluntarily place himself in such deadly danger—to “make my contribution,” as he put it. He would later participate in another controversial war, fought on foreign shores, but he would always contend that he got his first and most fearsome dose of human brutality in his home state down at the local five-and-dime.
Memphis Norman was born July 23, 1942, to a family of sharecroppers who had barely moved from the land their slave forebears had inhabited a century before. That area in southwestern Alabama is just at the rim of the rich black soil that had made cotton king. His family’s circumstances were abysmal. In a good year his father, Judge Norman, would earn between $250 and $400 after a backbreaking spring and summer of chopping and picking cotton. Judge’s wife, Elizabeth MacMillian Norman, worked in the landowner’s house as a domestic—caring for her own five children along with those of the white household while also cleaning house and cooking meals. Judge labored twelve-hour days in the fields, giving half of everything he grew back to the landowner as payment. Only after settling that debt and others accumulated at the landowner’s store could he think about his own needs or those of his family.
Unfortunately for the family, Judge Norman compulsively put his own needs ahead of theirs. He was a drinker and a gambler in a situation where there was money for neither. He often spent the family’s meager funds on his own pursuits, leaving his wife and children with nothing beyond what Elizabeth earned or what they were given by their landlord or well-meaning but equally destitute neighbors.
At least they had the land, and Elizabeth planted a vegetable garden every spring. She canned produce to ensure a supply of food for the winter months, once the cotton money was gone. They grew melons and had fig and apple trees nearby. And there was corn, from which Elizabeth ground cornmeal for the family’s staple, cornbread. They kept a few chickens and pigs for meat, and they hunted wild animals: raccoons, opossums, rabbits, and squirrels. Still, there was never enough to go around, even though only five of the dozen children to whom Elizabeth gave birth lived past infancy.
Memphis Norman’s father often left his family for days at a time, sometimes, ironically, to attend classes on becoming a preacher. Judge Norman wanted to improve his lot, no doubt, and figured it would ultimately help the family if he could succeed in another profession. “It was crazy,” Memphis said resentfully. “Here was a man with a third-grade education and he was trying to become a full-fledged minister. For what? To preach to the rural blacks of Alabama? How much money was there in that?” The younger Norman felt that the church exploited black men like his father, siphoning off precious funds from poor families while holding out the unrealistic promise of economic improvement down the road.
Judge Norman never realized his dream. Instead he uprooted his family time and again, always seeking a better farm to sharecrop, with larger acreage and better soil that would produce a more abundant crop so as to earn a few more dollars—all to be either gambled or drunk away or spent in the vain hope of climbing up a rung or two on the socioeconomic ladder.
Of the five surviving children—four boys and a girl—Memphis Norman was in the middle. Norman and his older brothers would often help their father in the field, as would Elizabeth when her housework was done. But Memphis displayed an uncanny ability with numbers. At an early age, his mother had taught him the alphabet and multiplication tables, and he delighted in reciting them. As a result, teachers admired him and convinced his parents to let the child attend school regularly rather than working in the fields. Although the family’s moves often disrupted his education, Norman continued to excel at mathematics and reading. These positive developments helped him form a different opinion of himself and his abilities than his circumstances might otherwise have allowed.
The all-black schools he attended were mostly small and run- down structures, sometimes with only two rooms for six grades. The one lasting memory that Norman carried from those days was that he and his siblings would often have to attend school barefoot—a stigma no other children there had to endure. Even the poor have their pecking order; his family was at the very bottom. No land, no money, dependent on the landowner. Even other blacks looked down upon “those Normans.” “A lot of days we dreaded going to school,” Norman recalled. “We didn’t want the experience of being less than other people—being openly without basic necessities. It led to a feeling of inadequacy and feeling that you don’t belong. You’d rather be off by yourself.”
Because they moved so often, the Normans also failed to establish ties to any one place or community. Their lives were similar to those of migrant farm workers who seasonally moved up and down the eastern and western seaboards. The memory of this constant moving haunted Norman during his adulthood. “There seems to be an urge to go back, to visit all of those places where we were sharecroppers,” he said. “I suspect there were more than a dozen—maybe fifteen houses where we lived. Whenever I go there I’m looking for something. I’m not sure what it is.”
About the Author
It was while visiting the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 that M. J. O’Brien conceived the work that has become We Shall Not Be Moved. As part of its civil rights display, the King Center showed a photograph of the 1963 Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth’s sit-in—a photograph that has become the image used in history books and magazine articles to show what a sit-in was like. O’Brien was captivated by the photograph because at its center was a woman, Joan (Trumpauer)Mulholland, whom he had known for a number of years.
We Shall Not Be Moved is a labor of love. Primarily created in the late 1990s and finally brought to life through the auspices of the University Press of Mississippi, it is a story of triumph and determination that was captured by the now-iconic Fred Blackwell photograph. Although its publication was delayed (as told in Acknowledgements), timing is everything. The book was supposed to be published in 1999, but for a variety of reasons, it is only reaching a broader public today. And that is as it should be. We are on the cusp of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In (May 28, 1963) and the courageous souls who decided, one-by-one , to sit in at the counter that day are being recognized for their contribution to the overall civil rights struggle.