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Lula White: “The idea that people would actually just disobey the law was electrifying.”

I almost found Lula White the first time around. I was pretty sure she was living in or near New Haven, Connecticut, but I never could find the right phone number for her. That problem was solved when I spoke at the the New Haven Public Library in the fall of 2008. They told me they also had a Rider for the program, Lula White. Hello, nice to meet you. It was the first but not the last time I found a Rider that way.

Lula White was born in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1938, but she did not grow up there. At six she joined the great migration, moving with her family to New Haven, Connecticut, so her father could find better work (as he did in the factories of Armstrong Rubber and Winchester, among others). Like many Riders, she was raised in a tradition of protest: In high school, she went with her family to a rally at Yale in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

After high school — and this may be my favorite thing about her — White somehow managed to find a Baptist scholarship she used to go to the University of Chicago. Those two things don’t really go together, but off she went. By her senior year she was running the campus chapter of the NAACP and staging sympathy pickets in support of the sit-ins in the south (it was 1960). She was especially fascinated by what was happening in Nashville, so off she went again, a spring break road trip to the movement’s front lines.

In 1960, during my fourth year of college, my roommate and I went to Nashville, because we were reading about the sit-ins. It was just electrifying — the idea that people would actually just disobey the law, that people would just say, I’m not going to take it anymore, I’m just not going to live this way.

So we went down to Nashville and met a lot of people — Marion Barry, Diane Nash, Bernard LaFayette. We were very excited. It was during a truce, a temporary break-off of the sit-ins, while they negotiated with the local merchants. But we got to learn about nonviolence, and how they had organized these sit-ins. We stayed about 8 days.

It was very exciting, to know that people without power — ordinary people — could do something, something as simple as going in and sitting down. It was was just thrilling.

By the time of the Rides, the next year, White was teaching elementary school in Chicago and now a member of the more-aggressive CORE (the sponsor of the Rides). She waited until the school year ended, then off she went again, this time to get arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. The act itself was still thrilling, even if the Riders’ jail-no-bail strategy guaranteed full-on encounters with white power.

When we got to Parchmam, they did a body search. It was horrifying to me to have them take our clothes off, throw us on a table, and do a body cavity search. I don’t think I had ever been naked in front of a group of people before. Even in gym class in high school and college, girls, especially back then, we just didn’t run around naked.

I didn’t really know that was going to happen. I knew they were going to give us prison uniforms but I didn’t know that they were going to do the body search. I don’t even know if the man was a doctor. If any of the men in the room were. Someone just stuck — it was horrifying.

Other white-power performances were more nonsensical and less traumatic.

On different Sundays at Parchman we had religious people come in. We had a segregationist Baptist minister, white, who came. He walked up and down the cellblock, explaining why what we were doing was wrong and that God intended the races to be separate. He was talking about that business in the Bible about Noah’s son, Ham, being cursed — stuff I had heard all before, which I didn’t believe.

We didn’t listen to him. We weren’t rude, because we were taught not to be. And that was also in a time and age when people didn’t try to drown people out just because they didn’t want to hear something. But we weren’t paying him any attention. He only came once.

After the Rides, White returned to the University of Chicago for a masters in history, a course of study that included an on-campus arrest in 1962 while protesting housing discrimination at the university. In 1968 she returned to New Haven and taught history in public high schools there until she retired in 1996. Her on-going practice in “good trouble” included a week in jail during a teacher’s strike in 1975 and another arrest in 2002 during a sit-in at Yale in support of the union workers there.