|Part I -
Welcome to St. Augustine and the world around it, just before it was hurled into the civil rights movement at the 11th hour. Think life was simpler in 1963? Think again.
1. The Law of the Land
2. "The times, they are a-changing"
3. A Very Good Year
Part II -
In a relentless test of will and tactics, Foot Soldiers overcome stunning brutality and contribute to the final push needed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
4. The Art of Deception
5. Direct Confrontation
Part III -
It's 2010 already. What earthly difference does any of this make now?
6. Childhood's End
|The Law of the Land
by Brian R. Owens
click to download a PDF file of this essay
As I walked the charming streets of downtown St. Augustine, I remember thinking "this is why I moved to Florida". It is a city of unconventional appearance, located on the Atlantic coast just south of Jacksonville. The downtown area is picturesque with no visible shortage of small shops and people on foot eager to part with their money. Some of the buildings at its center are older than the republic. Where other cities have a stadium and a park, St. Augustine has a Spanish fort and a historic plaza replete with monuments and canons. It bills itself as the oldest city in America; a claim that may be restated more precisely as the oldest city established by Europeans in America.
In 1963 St. Augustine had a population of about 15,000, a black population of about 25% and was largely dependent as it is now, on tourism. It was lovely but conventional in its enforcement of strict racial segregation. Blacks were prohibited from using beaches, hotels, restaurants, public schools and all other public areas used by whites. This was the law of the land, enacted by the State of Florida and most of the other southern states. Lincolnville was one of several segregated black neighborhoods that I reference in other essays. But the purpose of segregation was far more sinister than the word implies: More than a desire by whites for separate living arrangements, it was an effective device for limiting the aspirations of blacks and their access to power in its many forms, especially political power. It reminded them of their status as second-class citizens. May I speak freely? It was also used to control social interaction with the primary objective of eliminating everything that even remotely bordered on sexual contact between black men and white women; a vexing, persistent threat that featured prominently in the overactive imaginations of bigots everywhere, especially in the South. Its complement (namely, sexual contact between white men and black women) while frowned upon, provoked a less animated response.
Humor me for a moment and consider the strangeness of this picture: In 1963, the electronics revolution was off to a brisk start with the invention of the transistor 12 years earlier. With this invention, simple computers could be made smaller - small enough to fit into tiny manned spacecraft (called space capsules) and the foundation was thus laid for an epoch of ever-shrinking electronic innovation. Seeking ambitiously to shrink the genetic imprint of blacks in America, a northerner named William Shockley (one of the Nobel Prize winning inventors of the transistor) began in earnest to apply his otherwise wonderful mind to his racist theories of eugenics disguised as impartial science.
As blacks in Florida considered the meaning of yet another cottage fire-bombed by the KKK, NASA in Florida considered improvements to the rockets that would hurl their capsules - controlled by Shockley's transistors - into space again, this time to orbit the earth. Florida the "sunshine state" was at once home to both the past and the future. Shockley's wacky theories (now demolished by the Human Genome Project) confirm that even the northern white elite suffered (in their own way) the ghastly wounds of the nation's past under its fairly new suit of super power clothing. I should state that the northern states were no utopia for blacks either. To be black was to be on guard wherever you lived but nowhere were the wounds of the nation more evident than in the southern states with segregation codified into state law.
But how did these laws come to be?
Yes, the southern states were slave states defeated in the Civil War. By the late 1860s the practice of slavery had mostly ended in America. And yes, racism could be found then as now, almost anywhere on earth. But how was it that white supremacy was so strong a belief that it extended its long dark shadow from a time before the republic was born into the dawn of mankind's adventure into space? And why here, in a democratic republic with a constitution that upholds personal freedom above most everything else? Because the powerful belief (or culture) of racial supremacy was absolutely necessary to establish and expand the slave-based plantation economy of the south when it was on a roll. White supremacy was dug in like a boar tick. Without this culture of belief and its overwhelming support by the majority of white Christian churches in the south, it may not have been possible to sustain the crimes against humanity that are the history of the American slave trade. How else could otherwise rational men participate in it and build their economic lives upon it? There were islands of resistance; pockets of rational, critical thinking. During slavery, most "enlightened" whites (including Abraham Lincoln) could not have envisioned the nation as we know it where the races operate as social equals. For Abe at least, whites would always be closer to God. But for them, no appeal to tradition, the Bible or state's rights could justify the level of cruelty that was the monster in the machine of slavery. But the culture succeeded in instructing the national white population that they were entitled by their birth as whites to dominate this continent and everything on it. This belief was taken to its radical extreme in the south.
So powerful was the economy of the south that Thomas Jefferson scratched his original version of the Constitution that forbade slavery in order to include the southern states in the union and thus accelerate the acquisition and conquest of the continent. The northern states also benefitted from ancillary businesses indirectly related to slavery. Thomas Paine had begged Jefferson to sign the first draft of the Constitution, saying in effect "we can begin anew and wash ourselves of this stain". But Jefferson's mind was fixed. By means both ingenious and cruel, Jefferson's America started as a thin band of coastal colonies that somewhat resembles Chile and ended as an empire that stretched from sea to shining sea. Regarding slavery, Jefferson would later write "I tremble for my country when I remember that god is just" and as the empire continued to grow, the southern culture of white supremacy deepened still as its economy strengthened, setting the stage for a national implosion nearly a century later: The most devastating war this nation has ever suffered.
So when their world collapsed in military defeat; when their plantations were set afire; when their financial system failed; when they saw blacks running for public office and earning money, southern whites elected fascists who did what politicians do best: Tell their constituents what they yearn to hear while getting paid and perfecting their golf game. They could have reinvented the south and led it toward modernity. Instead these 19th and 20th century leaders declared "You may be poor, but at least you're white and southern by the grace of God". The preachers lamented, saying: "I'd like to help the blacks but it is against God's will". The lawmen said: "To subjugate the black is to protect our white women". And so slavery - America's "original sin" (as Christopher Hitchens put it) - assumed another ghastly if less powerful shape. As the White House busied itself with other matters in the late 1800s, the body of state and local laws known to southerners then as "Jim Crow" and to us now as "Segregation" were enacted and remained in effect for nearly a century.
In 1963 the law of the land was the part of the national wound that you could see easily. Below this wound was the infection, namely: The myth of race and racial supremacy. This and other dogmatic myths and their deliberate delivery into the minds of populations in order to achieve wealth and geo-political objectives is part of the human dilemma; a dilemma that is as old as our species. The delivery system changes but the nature of the message remains the same: It is a repetitive sales pitch from those in authority, inviting you to set your skepticism and critical thinking aside in favor of emotion-based belief in both the seller and what is being sold. The platform for serious debate is removed and dissenters are silenced until the people - even an armed and educated people - behave (in the words of Peter Joseph) "like sheep that no longer need a sheep dog to control them, for they ... control each other". Usually the sales pitch involves the identification of an enemy and includes words like "honor". Take care my friends when you hear the word honor because when you do, somebody is about to get killed.
The law of the land was a clever reinvention of an old song. You've heard this song before. In its verses we learn how to bypass and undermine our own laws by redefining words like "citizen" and "human". Faster, more terrifying versions of this song have played to large audiences in Europe, South-east Asia and Africa and it never seems to go out of style. This is what Dr. Jacob Bronowski called "the assertion of dogma that closes the mind" as he knelt over the mass grave that held 60 or more of his relatives at Auschwitz . This is the basic math that we - as a species - keep forgetting and then have to relearn with tragic consequences: If you're in the slavery business, the racism business, the empire at any cost business, the fascism business, the Stalinist business or the religious fanatic business - then closing the minds of the people while crafting an enemy for them to fear and loathe is what helps keep your nameplate firmly attached to the double-wide polished walnut doors to your office and keeps your banker smiling.
|"The times, they are a-changing"
by Brian R. Owens
click to download a PDF file of this essay
In the summer of '63 Michael Jordan was in still in his crib but Michael Jackson was already being groomed as an entertainer at the tender age of 5. A collective feminine sigh could be heard when a young Sean Connery returned as James Bond, the tuxedo wearing spy in the movie "From Russia with Love". An even younger Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) had already defeated his first 19 professional opponents using an unorthodox and entertaining boxing style of his own invention. ABC's Wide World of Sports was in its third year and Americans were staying up late to watch a guy named Johnny Carson on a relatively new kind of TV program called the Tonight Show. American car manufacturers were in a race to produce light cars with huge engines called "muscle cars". Ford introduced the 1963 Galaxie 500, sporting a 460 cubic inch power plant that you could use to vaporize your rear tires to the sound of Marvin Gaye's performance of "Pride and Joy" - a Top 10 pop single that placed no.2 on the R & B chart in May.
In the summer of '63 you could fill your Galaxie "Five-Oh-Oh" for about 30 cents a gallon and take a road trip from St. Augustine to visit one of the great northern cities with a large black labor force that had evolved into an arts and cultural super-collider. You could roll up to New York and see the work of visual artists like Romare Bearden in person, as it should be seen; or, you could drive to Detroit and explore one innovative nightclub after another and witness the birth of new styles and new talent for yourself. Imagine yourself on a northbound Florida highway near sundown. You're rolling and the car still smells new. And when the Supremes fade to static on your radio and the sound of the road fills your ears; when the sun sets and all you can see are the lights on your dashboard and 60 feet of highway unfolding in front of you, your mind begins to wander. First you think of the opposite sex, then you think of the future. You have your degree, your honorable discharge and your dreams. You're an American so you dream big. And for a while you forget that you're black and that although youre driving across a nation of laws, your access to lodging, the dining room and the rest room on the open road is by no means certain. The welcoming neon sign may signify a courteously prepared take-out meal or abundant possibilities of humiliation, for your practical status as a citizen - as a human being - can change as quickly as your Goodyear radials carry you from one county or state into another.
So what else was happening in the world beyond St. Augustine and how shall we reckon the effect it may have had on the black leaders that lived there? It was no secret that America was under the long dark cloud of a "cold war" with no end in sight. By mid-1963 the "space race" (an emerging competition within the arms race) was in full swing. The US had just inched past the Soviet Union with John Glen's success as the first man to orbit the earth about a year earlier. This was no friendly contest. Just five years earlier, Americans listened using their "ham radios" with wonder and fear to the beeping sound of Sputnik, the worlds first artificial satellite; a reminder of America's theoretical proximity to the long arm of Soviet rocketry. Three years earlier, a spy plane called "U-2" was the state of the art in covert, aerial surveillance as the spy satellite had not yet been perfected. This was a secret until US airman Francis Gary Powers' U-2 was shot down over Soviet air space and he was captured alive. The view from inner space - however it was done - was expected to make up for our lack of intelligence "resources" within the USSR and China. And orbital missile platforms, then considered to be an attractive alternative to silo-based ICBM's, were on the conceptual drawing board. Yes, the space race was a way of demonstrating to the world the superiority of the US in all matters related to ingenuity and bravery. But space was also expected to be the next frontier for war - be it hot or cold - with our greatest adversary.
In its rhetoric, the military claimed to offer more to blacks than could be found in civilian life; a more level playing field; the opportunity for recognition and advancement on merit. Since the birth of the republic, blacks had volunteered for military service, distinguished themselves in combat and then returned to civilian life to discover that their sacrifice had precious little effect on the conscious of the nation. Once again in the sixties, blacks had been asked to be patient and to wait for equality - but for how long, they wondered? In the fifties, black soldiers had fought and died alongside whites to achieve a stalemate in the killing fields of the Korean peninsula. In 1963 they were fighting in elite units prior to major combat operations in a small country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam. In October 1962, the "Cuban missile crisis" had brought the US and the Soviets so close to a hot war that Kennedy's Secretary for Defense, Robert McNamara, would attribute the avoidance of nuclear combat - decades later in his writings - to blind luck. Each side had a disturbing assortment of conventional, strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and the will to use them. In a contest for geo-political dominance the US government had laid claim to world leadership as its pre-eminent force for good while the world watched newsreel footage of peaceful black protesters beaten with pipes, shot with water cannons and set upon by dogs.
Bare with me and follow me closely for a moment: The national civil rights movement essentially began when a woman named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. This was a bold move as police had killed a black man on a bus less than a year before for doing the same thing. By 1963, the movement had been underway for nine years and had suffered many casualties. Then, on June 12,1963, NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers (an honorably discharged Sergeant who fought in Europe during WWII) was assassinated by the KKK in front of his Mississippi home. This was the third attempt to kill Evers in as many weeks, lead by a unit of Klansmen who probably bore a closer resemblance to the inbred banjo-playing kid on the porch in the movie Deliverance than to elite commandos. Evers had followed Martin Luther King, Jr. by agreeing not to use violence, even in self-defense.
This tragic death (and others in the following months) could likely have been prevented by a simple request from President Kennedy's office that Evers be watched by a couple of agents. Black citizens had reached out to Kennedy many times as State and local governments failed to offer meaningful, lawful protection from outrageous mob violence. How would blacks measure the honor of a White House that needed them to exercise its strategy of communist "containment" even as that White House ignored one preventable racist atrocity after another? Reacting to the senseless killing of Medgar Evers, Bob Dylan composed his enduring masterpiece: "The times, they are a-changing". To the St. Augustine chapter of the NAACP I suspect this conclusion was self-evident.
I have no crystal ball to observe how these national and international events affected black leadership in St. Augustine but consider this: In 1963, all that was required to see the world beyond St. Augustine change before your very eyes was the effort needed to turn the little knob on the front of your flickering black and white T.V.
This much I know for sure:
1. To actively and directly challenge authority in the pursuit of racial equality in St. Augustine was no small decision, and
2. In the summer of 1963 the decision to so challenge authority was made.
|A Very Good Year
by Brian R. Owens
click to download a PDF file of this essay
Daniel stopped at the corner and considered his options carefully: Should he go directly home to Lincolnville and do his chores as promised, or go get a fountain drink at Woolworth's first? He made his decision quickly, as he did all routine decisions. He enjoyed solving problems as well, especially math problems presented by his teachers at the local public school for blacks. Math was understandable and predictable, whereas people were not. He began to make his way downtown to Woolworths, thus satisfying his need as a teenager to rebel. As he walked, Daniel focused his mind on questions of greater importance, such as where to secure more cigarettes and catalogs of women's lingerie for his friends, thus satisfying his need as a teenager to conform.
Daniel had spent the day under the gentle instruction of black teachers at a segregated school before taking this leisurely late afternoon walk to where the white businesses were. His school lacked the infrastructure and educational tools of its white counterpart, but was nonetheless diligent in preparing the minds of its students and lived up to the standard as a "high" school in a time when a high school diploma was a noteworthy credit. Daniel was also well schooled on the subject of "social studies". For example, Daniel was quite aware that segregated schools - such as his school - were illegal in all 50 states. He sometimes wondered - on those rare occasions when his mind wandered from thoughts of the opposite sex - how this was possible in a nation of laws. In school he learned that local authorities, unmoved by the Supreme Court's decision to end school segregation in 1954, simply ignored the Federal Government and got away with it. Now it was 1963. Daniel was also fully aware that local authorities overlooked the more excitable white citizens in St. Augustine who apparently thought that the Constitution protected their right to burn the homes of black families whose children were sent to be schooled with their own. It did not escape Daniel's attention that those black students were no longer in attendance. It was common knowledge that those black families had been run out of St. Johns County.
Still, Daniel enjoyed his black schoolmates well enough and walked unmolested, as he passed restaurants, businesses and churches used by whites. And as he imagined the milk shake that he intended to order from Woolworth's, he was - for the moment - unconcerned that none of these businesses would let him sit to eat, provide a service or help facilitate his connection with God. He had adapted to the situation, having known nothing else but knew it was wrong. He knew that segregation was a nice clean word; a mild word for something sinister. Daniel followed the continuing magazine and TV coverage of the civil rights movement in other states with growing interest. Many of the marchers, he noticed, were not much older than himself. Some of them were even white.
Daniel's black teachers were consistent in explaining how this all came to be; in reinforcing his belief that his was an equal; that his inferior status as a citizen was not his fault but was thrust upon him. In his home and church he learned that he was equal before God. But in a remote corner of his mind - a corner that he would have denied if he knew it existed - there lived a small dark force of doubt and self-contempt that sought to produce a long, fine crack in the way he saw himself and cull the future that he thought was possible for himself. He was clever, studious and confident and still this dark force existed. His parents were knowledgeable and hardworking and still it lived. It spoke to him when he failed at a task or saw other blacks fail, inviting him to hold himself in contempt for being black. If pressed, Daniel would not have been able to put this all into words, but he felt lighter and taller when he listened to King's recorded voice. King illuminated that dark corner and for a while the still, small voice of doubt was silenced.
Buoyant and relaxed, Daniel entered Woolworth's confident that they would honor his money. He placed his order at a spot at the counter for "coloreds" and waited patiently for it to be produced for him to carry out and drink elsewhere. The lunch counter was for whites only. Two years earlier, a few black students had sat at that very counter in peaceful protest, requesting service and were quickly arrested.
Against his better judgment, Daniel had consumed nearly a half-gallon of Kool-Aid before he left school. He now contemplated this error in judgment as he waited at the counter and fixed his eyes on the restroom door. He could buy out the entire store if he had the money, but he knew better than to even consider using the restroom. It was for whites only. Segregation was the law and was strictly enforced by police. Entering that room would no doubt be easier than getting out. And if he used it, what would be waiting for him when he opened the door? A fine? Reform school? A beating? Daniel's eyes moved from the rest room door directly onto the amused face of blond-haired, blue-eyed kid roughly his own age behind the counter, who said: "Dont even think about it ... boy".
Daniel interrupted his little walk home to Lincolnville with a short stop behind a bush that he irrigated with a sigh of relief followed by the nagging self-admission that his response was inadequate. He should of at least spoken back to the kid even if it got him arrested. He could not escape the memory of the kid's smile. He could hold his water - his bladder was fit enough - but why was the kid so happy at the prospect of his humiliation? The nice, clean sign on the door had read "whites only" but its real message was this: "No academic achievement; no feat of athletic prowess; no demonstration of selfless bravery; no commitment to military service will relax the laws that remind you of your inferior status, for this was the intention of the law".
Daniel gave the matter more thought on his way home. Why did the kid's smile haunt him so? He had been instructed by his church to hate the sin and not the sinner. But he had also been instructed by the mainstream culture in nearly every movie he had seen, in every book he had read, that to be a "man" is to stand up for yourself. He had failed himself and the still, small voice of doubt whispered to him again, mocking him. From a distance he saw his father returning home from work; work he clearly did not enjoy for a white man he despised. Daniel had never spoken the words "love" and "father" in the same breath and yet he did love his father. He loved him even as he was bewildered by his father's evenness; his reticence; his refusal to help the local NAACP. "Who is this man" Daniel had asked himself "who rejects the idea of standing up?" If Daniel were older he might have known what to ask his father. If his father were a man of words he might have answered, saying: "Do you think I like the situation? My job is to stay employed and earn money. You're only as free as you are able to make money. How would I explain a shoeprint on the side of my face and a mouth full of broken teeth to my boss? How would I justify an empty wallet to your mother or to the landlord? You have known nothing but the full belly and the dry house that I gave you and now you doubt me? You child - you think you know what evil is, having glimpsed it from a distance, without walking up to it, without staring into it? You know nothing!" Then he might have lowered his voice, placed his hand on Daniel's shoulder and said "I have been saving for your college one dollar at a time, since you were born ... I would die for you but not for the NAACP". But these are words they would never speak.
King had given a voice to everything that Daniel had been taught and believed. But part of King's appeal was his apparent fearlessness. King was a family man who had been beaten and stabbed and then pushed on. The front of his home had been fire-bombed with his family inside of it and still he pushed on. In Daniel's imagination, King emerged from every attack stronger, more confident and eloquent than before. Daniel had heard adults in his church speak amongst themselves of bringing the struggle to the streets of commerce that he had just walked on and smiled at the thought of joining in. Something had happened in St. Augustine recently to stir things up; something to do with the anniversary of the founding of the City. Some of them wanted to follow King's model of peaceful protest. They called themselves "foot soldiers".
1963 was abundant with possibilities for Daniel to test himself against the mother of all teenager grievances: The hypocrisy of those who hold you in their power. For the aspiring teenaged foot soldier with a disciplined mind and an underdeveloped fear of civil authority, it was a very good year.
|The Art of Deception
by Brian R. Owens
In March of 1963, the logistical planning of King's triumphant march on Washington - slated for later in the year - was almost certainly underway. But in St. Augustine it was "business as usual".
The racist policies of the State, happily imposed by City government remained largely unchallenged, until they met the opposing force of one Fanny Fullerwood (a maid by day and NAACP Chapter President by night) and her colleagues.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY
by Brian R. Owens
Here's my problem: If I give you a blow by blow account of these events your eyes will glaze over in disbelief as you reach for the Excedrin or the liquor cabinet, or both. So I offer the following overview instead.
I think of the "direct confrontation" as consisting of four "waves" ...
CLICK HERE TO READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY
by Brian R. Owens
It's 2010. Just say the phrase "civil rights movement" and people's eyes glaze over. They hear the same sound byte from the same speech every February. They recoil from the same video footage. They point to the color of the 44th President. No longer a living memory, the movement is filed in a folder named "before I came of age". They say: "yes, yes the movement was important but not as important as my 401-K". Black and White is a kind of TV they dont make anymore. Green is the color that preoccupies us at the moment and its not the green of the natural world.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY
|Back to Home Page I Back to Previous Page I Back to Top
© 2009 Brian R. Owens