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Kicking Ass

When asked to participate in a civil rights march in Jackson, Mississippi, my mother, Lucille Richardson Eubanks, began to inquire about what might happen to her during a nonviolent protest. Of course, she already knew that she might be beaten, spat on, or shot at, but she had to ask. When part of the answer was that she would not be able to retaliate against any action directed at her, she refused to take part. “I’m definitely not nonviolent,” she told the organizers. “If you hit me, spit on me, or shoot at me, I’m going to do the same thing right back at you.” In the end, she wrote a check to support the cause and worked behind the scenes of the movement and not on the front lines. She and my father paid poll taxes for people registering to vote and helped run the local chapter of the NAACP—which operated under an assumed name to stay under the radar—but she could never come to terms with the idea of accepting suffering without retaliation.

I always admired my mother’s determined spirit. She was among the first women to serve on a jury in Mississippi, a state that did not allow women to serve on juries until 1968. She could not remember much about the trial, but she made it clear to everyone who served with her that she was their equal, since she was also one of the first black women to serve on a jury. “Sometimes I have to save your mother from herself,” my father once told me, referring to what he thought was my mother’s rash outspokenness in a society just emerging from Jim Crow. If my father were here today, I would tell him that my mother never needed anyone to save her. She was perfectly capable of saving herself. Because that was exactly what she did when she found herself widowed in her late forties, with two kids in college and one in middle school. She survived, and she provided for us all.

Lucille Richardson Eubanks had bright auburn hair that complemented her creamy freckled skin. She drove fast with the fervor and speed of a Formula One racer, wore smart dresses with high heels, and had a mouth more flamboyant than her conservative manner of dress. She radiated a sharp, pointed warmth and held nothing back. As she grew old and began to keep a cane with her to remain steady on her feet, she rejected the patronizing gestures often directed at the elderly. A grocery store cashier said something she deemed insulting to her one day, and her response was “Don’t let this gray head fool you. I still know how to kick ass.”

That was the attitude my mother kept until the very end: she still knew how to kick ass and would take names of those she deemed worthy of a swift thrust of her foot. A month before she died, she was in a wheelchair after a long hospital stay, one that made it clear the end was coming. Her driver’s license was nearing its expiration date, and she called me to take her to the DMV to get it renewed. This was a woman who learned to drive in her father’s logging truck when she was twelve, so at this point in her life she had been driving for seventy-six years by my calculation. Being the dutiful son, I did as I was told. I wheeled her through the DMV to take the vision test required of someone her age, and she valiantly moved to an erect position from the chair to look through the viewfinder. I could tell she was in pain as she stood there but was trying to hide that fact from me and any DMV official who might be watching.

When she passed the exam and had her photo taken for her new license, one of those officials motioned for me to come talk with her. “I’m guessing this is your mother. Do you really want her to have a driver’s license?” I knew my mother did not have long to live, and she prided herself on still being able to drive, even if was only a document that said she had the right to do so. I whispered to the officer, “My mother is dying,” something I knew at the time but had not yet said aloud. “A driver’s license is a source of pride. She’ll never get behind the wheel of a car again, trust me. Just let her have the license.”

And that is exactly what they did. When I wheeled her out of the DMV, she could not contain her happiness. When she looked up at me from her wheelchair and offered to drive home, I responded by telling her, “Don’t get cocky, now.” We laughed all the way back home.

I sometimes think getting that driver’s license added a month to my mother’s life. I’m so glad I had that much more time to hear a few more stories from her. Now one of my prized possessions is my mother’s last driver’s license. Every time I look at it, I remember a woman who may not have been able to embrace a philosophy of nonviolence but was always strong and in control.