Garrett Morgan in foreground, traffic light in background

I am a Street Person. I hang out on street corners. I try to bring attention to my plight. My sign reads, “Non-Violence.” The favorite sign of my friend John reads, “Another Vet Against the War.” Dot’s sign agrees, “Most Americans Want Peace Now.” Franz’s new addition has only two words, “Not Again.” Our special pal on the corner is the little White Man in the Light who blinks safety to everyone crossing the streets. He is also known as “The Walkman.”


Sturdy and steady nearby stand the Intersection Traffic Lights. They have become our friends. We take turns standing in the finger of shade they offer when the sun blasts furnace heat. They light up the winter darkness. These tall strong outposts allow us sociability. We greet and chat with those delayed while waiting for the friendly little white man in the light to signal crossing safety. At our Safeway location where five busy traffic arteries pool into the wide-open intersection, our friendly traffic signals command attention.


Just Friday last a youthful student astride his bike pauses for the walk light. I hold my sign, “Non Violence.” I make a point to engage the young man. I notice this bicycle rider wears his shirt to expose a large belt buckle. This particular decoration is not the typical rodeo silver with engraving of horses but that of an oft-observed flag, which prompts my question, “Is that a Confederate flag?” He nods his head to acknowledge the affirmative. The light hasn’t changed yet. I continue as he is stationary astride the bicycle with eyes focusing on the light. I notice his shirt full of an artistic type of script design but not overt like a swastika. I ask, “Are you a white supremacist?” He hedges, “I might be.” In spite of his reluctance to speak, I pursue the conversation: “We have people working for minimum wage, not enough to live on.” Through tightly tucked-in lips around a tiny dark opening of a mouth comes, “We should make all those Niggers work and not pay them anything!”


My jaw drops as the traffic bird tweets “Go” and the young man pedals away through the white pavement lines. The tiny white man in the traffic light blinks attention to the gathered students signaling safety to proceed across in front of the halted cars. The dark, darker, and very dark skin students follow the direction of the white man in the light as do an endless parade of mothers pushing carriages, fathers hand in hand with children, workers and athletes pedaling bicycles as well as a variety of skateboarders all sizes and colors.


The white man in the light blinks equal safety to all as time and demographics blur white lines and blunt hatred. I wish the youth pedaling away could know that the inventor and patent holder of safe traffic lights was a black man, Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)!