First Impressions

White college students conducting a peaceful protest for Civil Rights on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia circa 1968, courtesy of the Georgia State University photo archives.
Lisa Noël Babbage

Lisa Noël Babbage

Author, Teacher, Philanthropist

Jul. 16, 2018


“We hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. in our home in Decatur, Georgia, to one of the many dinner parties my parents threw. I was 14, and it never struck me as odd because this had been going on my whole life.”


After Hawaii, we landed in San Francisco. It was 1963. There were four of us in my family that were immigrating from Australia for my father’s three year appointment in the United States. I remembered when we first landed in Honolulu, we stood at the edge of Waikiki beach and starred - not at the beach, but at the cars. We had seen beautiful beaches before, but to us, America meant Disneyland and big cars.

Eventually, our family bought a car (a Ford Fairlane station wagon) and drove on Interstate 40, through all the national parks, saw the Grand Canyon, and traveled the depths of the earth in the mine shafts of Jerome, Arizona (900 feet) and then we eventually hit Alabama. Driving on a dirt road after taking a wrong turn, we saw some black kids that were practically naked because they were just that dirt poor. Arriving in the South was the turning point of our road trip. When we reached Atlanta, it was still culture shock, we saw rampant racism. I could not understand why this was the way it was. Even my father was surprised and in our first year of being here the Klan burned crosses in our front yard just for supporting the black community. We ended up picketing the Cathedral in Atlanta and our outspoken liberalism bridged the space between the quietness of our suburban lily-white neighborhood and the front-line of the inner-city Atlanta streets.

We hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. in our home in Decatur, Georgia, to one of the many dinner parties my parents threw. I was 14, and it never struck me as odd because this had been going on my whole life. Whenever there were visiting dignitaries back home in Australia, my father, then Dean of Sydney, would invite them to dinner – and more often than not, we were not turned down.

I’ll never forget when Decatur High School became integrated my senior year. Before that there were still ‘colored’ signs on water fountains. Even though the bus boycott had already happened, things were still very self segregated. People lived where they lived and went to school in those neighborhoods. The two black students that were enrolled happen to be the sons of our maid. Although my life in Australia was more diverse than the beginning of my life in the States, the biggest shock was attending a co-ed school for the first time. My teen-aged allusions faded day by day as we began our lives in America, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I never imagined that as Australians, we would actually have to learn to speak another language because the language of the South was nothing like the language we had been raised to speak. My family and I soon recognized that we had the privilege to be part of something great - the rebirth of America as it was. The turmoil of those times ended up granting access to the rights that the government was based on. We got here before Brown v. Board of Education, we got here before the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. My whole family picketed, we marched, we spoke out - but we never turned to hate because he (my father) preached love every week in his sermons. It wasn’t even up for discussion. We knew the expectation in spite of the discrimination people were living with. Feeling like I was part of the solution made a big impact on my life.

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