One American Life
On the other side of the world, James Seawel met a fellow American, Benjamin Adams, who told him stories of the Civil Rights Movement. Adams would never call himself a hero, but Seawel knows he was one.
Friends and family suspected that wanderlust might be nudging me just a little too far when I announced my impending move to Bahrain. Enlisted folk might not have a choice, but as a civilian contractor to the U.S. military, I certainly have the right of refusal, a fact not lost on my anxiety-prone mother.
Even though my professional life had hit its stride, my personal life approximated a trailer park after a tornado. So, I proposed a solution. Where better to take stock of my life than as far from home as I could get?
When on temporary assignments around the globe, I cling to the maxim, “Just here to do the job, not to make friends.” Avoidance being an introvert’s superpower, I felt surely my plan would work. I made myself a promise I believed would allow me to experience this corner of the Middle East truly: I would not spend all of my free time with my American co-workers.
Despite best laid plans, I soon established friendships with dozens of base and school personnel. It turns out I had a lot in common with the kind of American misfits who find solace in a melting pot such as a tiny island kingdom on the other side of the world. I found more expatriates on its sands than natives.
While racism and discrimination are not uniquely American, I heard a common refrain among the African Americans I met while in Bahrain. Black peers often remarked how much better they were treated overseas than at home.
And so it was I came across an older Black gentleman who graced me with his experiences and wisdom. He was neither ostentatious nor overt in his observations, but he happily answered my questions.
Quiet heroes live among us, unfettered by ego and un-feted by society. Benjamin Adams is one such hero. The personification of humility, this gentle and gracious man, a beloved figure at the Bahrain School and on Navy Base NSA Bahrain, Mr. Adams speaks with deference and walks with dignity. At first glance, one might assume this veteran of a 40-plus year marriage (to the spirited Dr. Nettie Parry-Adams) has led a quiet and comfortable life.
That’s true, but it’s far from the whole story.
The High Cost of Change
Benjamin Adams seldom speaks of the bastard Jim Crow, who loomed as an unwelcome guest during much of his childhood and cast a gloomy shadow over his Southern upbringing. In his boyhood, the rumblings of change hovered just over the horizon like a summer thunderstorm. The thunder became a torrent on May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended racial segregation in public schools. The ruling catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement, but it ran face first into the unyielding (and often white-robed) fist of America’s darkest national tradition: racism.
While Adams and I were still both in Bahrain, the Air Force veteran and civil service retiree blessed me with the opportunity to hear and record firsthand accounts of his life during the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone around me had thought of him simply as Dr. Parry-Adams’s husband, a nice man who volunteered and served on occasion as a substitute teacher at the school. And he was that. But he was also an unsung hero.
His story first came to me during a casual group discussion among career educators concerning the drastic changes in public education over the years. He did not begin his story like my forebears started theirs —walking uphill both ways in inclement weather to a one-room, wooden schoolhouse in the rural South overseen by a strict female teacher with a soft spot for special cases. No, his story was different in large measure by nature of his race.
Benjamin Wallace Adams, the proud son of proud African Americans, was born and reared in the Piedmont region of southern Virginia, and came of age when America could no longer ignore racial inequality. His generation would enjoy greater freedoms than previous generations of Blacks, but young Benjamin Adams learned firsthand about the high cost of change.
This wise gentleman’s life contains a wealth of stories. Their grim details and sad commentary on the nature of the human condition run contradictory to the smile that daily spreads over his face in the classrooms where he is found encouraging and supporting tomorrow’s leaders. The tales he told indicated a life far removed from anything idyllic, bucolic, or easy. From enduring police brutality as a high school student marching for civil rights to being drafted into the Vietnam War at barely 18 years of age to returning from Southeast Asia as a veteran disrespected by many of his fellow Americans, Benjamin rose above it all to become a quiet force for good.
Certainly, he belonged to exciting times, but also to years of distress for a young Black man trying to navigate his way through a world not yet ready to grant him the decency to enter through the front door. He was on the receiving end of snarling attack dogs and spewing fire hoses. The sticks and stones broke bones, either literal or figurative, and despite the naivete or the old adage, the words did indeed hurt — as they were so intended. Still, no weapon raised against him prospered; no man or system could extinguish the fire burning in his heart.
Monday, Bloody Monday
Nothing in Mr. Adams’s demeanor annoys anyone. He is polite without being showy, personable without being intrusive, devoutly Christian without the slightest hint of self-righteousness. The compass needle of his character always points toward True Gentleman.
As we talked, Mr. Adams served up no sound bites, no snapshots of a bitter man resentful of his fellow Christians who wouldn’t let him in their church buildings, no grudge against the government who took him out of college and sent him to a faraway land to fight people with whom he had no quarrel.
At first, I wondered if his calm demeanor represented the defense mechanism of emotional detachment. I wondered if he had buried the pain in an inaccessible place. But as we became better acquainted, I realized he was not disconnected from the reality of his past at all; he was a man at peace with himself and his story. A good attitude, the GI Bill, a supportive wife, and his faith in God carried him a mighty long way. Like the title of one of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical works and the gospel song expressing similar sentiments, Mr. Adams embodies the words “wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
My attempts to mine for any sliver of anti-white or anti-police or anti-government sentiment didn’t strike any ore. When asked direct questions, he answered honestly but in a just-the-facts manner. He never veered toward anything akin to shock value. Mr. Adams has experienced enough drama in his life, so he is not looking for a reason to provoke excitement at this stage of his life. He simply tells his stories.
But his stories are bone-shakingly powerful, particularly when he recounts the march for civil rights in the summer of 1963 in his hometown of Danville, Virginia — a day that Virginia historians would later refer to as “Bloody Monday.”
The Danville Police Department found itself unprepared to respond to the marches and demonstrations of Black people seeking equal rights. Apparently, allowing people of color to demonstrate peacefully was unthinkable. The white mayor and the all-white city council and police force overreacted. Trash collectors, city employees, and even acquaintances of city leaders were hastily deputized to help control what the white establishment viewed as a disturbance of the peace and a threat to the social order.
“The government giving [white] folks the opportunity as well as their blessing to hit some N-word over the head, and turn the fire hoses and dogs lose on us was just too good to be true for some of these people,” Mr. Adams told me. “They never liked Black folks to start with, and this was their chance to let us see just how much they didn’t like us.” He could have been talking about the weather in Nebraska: His voice remained even without even a hint of malice. He has chosen to forgive the men and systems who attacked him when he was a still a child, though not one of them has ever sought forgiveness from him.
“A stream of water as big around as a saucer would hit you, tear into you, rip your skin off — sometimes down to the bone. Man, when they’d cut those engines on — that force. That water hits you so hard, it knocks you down."
Having been born after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, most of my understanding of the era comes from books and movies. Many of these accounts attempt to capture the essence of the era, though clearly any reference points my generation has are not from firsthand experience. Talking to and befriending a living witness of history ushers in sobering and sad reality. Watching Ava DuVernay’s award-winning 2014 film “Selma” moved me to tears. Talking to Benjamin Adams about Bloody Monday struck me in the heart.
“A stream of water as big around as a saucer would hit you, tear into you, rip your skin off — sometimes down to the bone,” he told me. “Man, when they’d cut those engines on — that force. That water hits you so hard, it knocks you down. You can imagine young kids — girls and boys, some younger than me — and they turn that hose on you and push you back. It was traumatic. Here we were kids. Kids they’d known. Kids who’d never caused any trouble in town. We came to demonstrate, to march, to let our voices be heard. And they turned dogs loose on us. Here, you’re trying to march — peacefully, mind you — and they put up a barrier and won’t allow you to cross it. The water hoses were their defense line, and the dogs were their defense line. Big old German shepherds. The cops sicced the dogs on us. People got injured, hurt really bad, but they didn’t care. Some of the white men were angry, others were smiling — laughing even. We were wondering what would happen to us, but we’d figure that out soon enough.”
He described the arrest process. The police “caught and corralled as many of us as they could, even getting physical with us even though we were peaceful,” he said. “Even after they attacked us, we were peaceful. We were scared, but we remembered our leaders saying to always be peaceful.
“By this point, you could do nothing right. Nothing to please them. They hauled us in for disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly or failure to disperse, but they didn’t stop there. If you tried to defend yourself against their blows, you were resisting arrest. If they didn’t like your attitude or if you even looked defensive, they’d slap you with assault on an officer.”
"If you tried to defend yourself against their blows, you were resisting arrest. If they didn’t like your attitude or if you even looked defensive, they’d slap you with assault on an officer.”
They were taken to jail on trumped-up charges that, in many cases, didn’t even exist in the criminal code.
“But it wasn’t long before the mayor and city council had laws on the books for every little thing,” Mr. Adams told me. “Let’s just say they didn’t waste time arresting Black folks. They had this peaceful little town, where we kind of existed to work for and serve them. They were shocked that their ‘good Black people’ were doing them this way.’” Many of the white townsfolk painted themselves as victims. They took it upon themselves to take offense at the Black youth and their marches and demonstrations for social change.
At the police station, the parents were brought in and threatened and humiliated in front of their children. Some of the teens had been arrested, others were let go with warnings that if they were seen in groups in town again their parents would lose their jobs at the mill and they’d have to leave town. The illegality of such threats was irrelevant for Black people too poor to afford legal representation in a system rigged against them.
Benjamin Adams was heartbroken and discouraged. He had marched for justice in a game where the dealer was crooked.
The March Proceeds
One highlight in this otherwise dark time came when Benjamin Adams met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later that same year. Several of the Black churches in Danville hosted Dr. King to discuss the status and progress of the national Civil Rights Movement. On that visit, Dr. King did not march; he did not challenge the community establishment. His primary purpose was to assess their situation and advise accordingly. Three months after Bloody Monday, white supremacists bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four little girls. This wound was fresh and raw in everyone’s mind. People were scared. People were angry. People wanted retribution. Dr. King delivered a message of peace.
“He not only encouraged nonviolence; he insisted on it,” Mr. Adams told me. “He demanded it, lovingly yet authoritatively.”
Benjamin Adams is not easily starstruck, but he was mesmerized by Dr. King. When he spoke of the great preacher, Adams’s demeanor changed. His faced glowed with pride as he recounted what happened that day 60 years ago.
“I don’t know how else to say it, but hearing him talk was akin to hearing Jesus Christ speak,” Mr. Adams said. He is a devoted follower of Jesus, and he paused to let the weight of his statement sink in. He looked me in the eye and continued.
“Dr. King not only encouraged nonviolence; he insisted on it. He demanded it, lovingly yet authoritatively. I don’t know how else to say it, but hearing him talk was akin to hearing Jesus Christ speak."
“Dr. King not only had such an effect on African Americans, but even white people were moved by his speeches — even white people who didn’t like us and who didn’t care what happened to us,” Mr. Adams said. “Just like Jesus, Dr. King would sometimes escape being arrested. It’s true. When angry crowds would demand to know of white cops why they hadn’t arrested Dr. King, the [white] police would say, ‘We’ve never heard anyone speak like that.’”
When Benjamin Adams finished high school early at age 15, he wanted to continue in the fight for civil rights. His parents set him free to follow his conscience, to choose his course of action. But he knew the little nest egg they’d scrimped and saved to send him to college would evaporate were he to be arrested and fined again. He faced a choice: Quit his activism and have a roof over his head and food in his stomach or to keep fighting the good fight.
He would not surrender at any price, so he decided to leave Danville. His parents blessed his decision: It relieved them of the fear of losing jobs and the ability to care for his younger siblings. At just 16 years of age, he moved 140 miles east to Petersburg to enter the historically Black Virginia State College (now Virginia State University). With the threat of retaliation against his family removed, the young man’s activism increased.
The Movement in Petersburg had more and greater access to the national civil rights leaders. During the March on Washington (and at subsequent events), Mr. Adams met the legends, the icons: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and the activists John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael.
Benjamin Adams has finally retired after decades of service on the front lines of many battlefields, both at home and abroad during wartime and during peace. He never once claimed to be a role model or hero. He more often uses “we” than “I.” But having spent time with Mr. Benjamin Adams, I am sure that I have met at least one great man in my life.
James Seawel’s essays have been featured in Arkana, bioStories, DASH Literary Journal, Tales from the South, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. He was nominated by Arkana for Best of the Net in 2021, and his editorials frequently appear in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Currently, he travels with the U.S. Military as a civilian counselor. James grew up in the Ozark foothills, absorbing the stories of his family and community.