PURE GOLD: A PERSONAL LOOK BACK AT CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY.

Jackie Robinson

The prospect of the first black president to take the oath of office on Lincoln’s bible brought to mind a broad range of memories in our long struggle for civil rights: examples of outright bigotry, of courageous actions, of stereotypes, zealotry, redemption and exhilaration.

What follows is a collection of incidents in this unfinished struggle to “overcome” and fulfill King’s dream for America.

***

Norm Skinner was the first black basketball star at Columbia. He was recently quoted in the college magazine indicating he had never experienced racial prejudice during his undergraduate days.

Maybe it was just as well he forgot one incident I was witness to.

As an editor of the Columbia Spectator I was friendly with Skinner and in 1947 we were part of a four-couple dinner date, two black couples and two white. We were meeting in one of the dorm lobbies. Skinner and another ball player were there with their dates, and I had a brainy bundle of energy from Smith.

A classmate of mine and his girlfriend were to meet us there. They entered the dorm and stood near the front door, engaged in conversation. They could easily see the six of us sitting on couches. Then my friend walked over to us, told us his girlfriend had gotten a splitting headache and that he’d have to take her home. He turned to the door and they were both gone.

The event did not sit well with Skinner who took the exodus as a slight. I tried to minimize the incident at dinner but Skinner was right.

It was all about race.

***

Father George B. Ford had been advisor to Catholic students at Columbia and was by far the most liberal of religious leaders at Morningside Heights. In fact, he had gotten under Cardinal Spellman’s skin and been sent back to his midtown parish.

But he would frequently show up at inter-faith meetings on campus with stories relevant to the times.

He told us about five priests in civilian clothes, himself included, who had gone to a Child’s restaurant for lunch. Childs was a well-known chain operation in mid-century.

The waiter came over and said he was sorry but the restaurant did not serve Negroes, one of the priests being black. Ford asked to see the manager who came to the table.

“I told him we were all priests and that if he did not serve all of us we would all come back the next day, this time with our collars on, and picket the place.”

Ford paused, smiled, and added: “So they served us. There are times when you simply must stand up for what’s right.”

***

I was a student at Columbia Journalism School in 1948, where we were repeatedly told how fair and progressive the school was.

During the term, the class would break up into teams and head for small upstate papers where each group would produce a dummy issue. Students were given different assignments like managing editor, copy editors as well as specific reportorial responsibilities.

Revella Clay was the only black student in our class and she was assigned to cover a women’s club event which featured a guest speaker of some note. Confident and competent, Clay looked forward to doing the story.

But just before we got on the train to Peekskill, our teacher, Prof. Dick Baker of the N.Y. Times, told Clay she would be given a different assignment.

We wondered about the change and Baker explained that the women’s group had made the request.

“Yeh, it upset me too,” Baker explained, “but the Peekskill paper has been very good to the school over the years and we didn’t want to damage the relationship.”

We spent two days in Peekskill putting out our paper. I ran into a housing scandal at quarters set aside for returning veterans, which the Peekskillers never covered. We were still upset about the Clay slight and it was early in February,so I did an editorial on Lincoln and what we felt he stood for. It was not lost on Baker or my fellow students.

***

After Columbia, I worked on a daily newspaper in Gallup, N.M. (pop.11,000) between 1949 and 1952. The southern part of New Mexico was Deep South and all that implied. Gallup was in the northwest corner—a mixed bag, but with a lot of racist habits: The bowling league only permitted “Caucasian” participation.

I covered all local news, including sports, and on occasion would visit the high school track and field coach. On one visit, he expressed enthusiasm about a new runner:

“We have this little Negro boy who is going to win a lot of races for us.”

“What’s his distances?” I asked.

The coach thought that was a stupid question.

“He runs the 60 and 100-yard dashes. Don’t you know the Negroes don’t have stamina for the longer distances?”

***

We had a cranky night clerk at my Gallup hotel who was a certified bigot. He rented rooms to all the sloppy, noisy drunks who showed up—as long as they were white.

One night I was sitting in the lobby when a sleek black limo drove up and a tall, good-looking, immaculately dressed black man entered the hotel. The night clerk turned his back on him. The man asked politely: “Do you have any Negro quarters here?”

“The other side of the tracks,” is all the night clerk would say, and the man left.

A few weeks later, The Jackie Robinson Story was playing at a local movie house. My paper often got free tickets and, surprisingly, the night clerk asked for one and I gave it to him.

Next time I saw him, I asked him what he thought of the movie. He smiled and said: “You could see from the beginning that Robinson had a lot of white blood.”

***

The Catholic high school in Gallup produced an old-fashioned minstrel show and I covered it for my paper. I praised the performers but noted that I was sorry to hear blacks referred to throughout the presentation as “coons.”

I received a phone call from the priest who had directed the performance. Would I drop over to his apartment?

When I got there, he said he had been afraid to tamper with the script given him but really meant no offense. Then he turned on his record-player. It was Paul Robeson singing “Old Man River.”

“I love Robeson but he’s considered very radical so don’t tell the other priests I was playing this.”

***

I moved to Greenwich Village in 1954, got involved in the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign in 1956, and the following year helped form Village Independent Democrats. The club had about 20 committees but almost every club member belonged to our civil rights committee.

As the struggle for democracy raged in the South, the club became more militant, if at times unrealistic.

At one membership meeting, a resolution was presented, calling on VID to sponsor a Freedom House in Mississippi.I asked what it would cost and was told “$10,000.” I don’t think we ever had more than $250 in uncommitted funds in the club account.

I was booed for my inquiry. A particularly angry young woman came over and saw my equal button pinned to my shirt. “You don’t deserve to wear this,” she said, and put her hands on the button. I grabbed her wrist and advised her I would break her arm if she didn’t remove her hand from the button. Fortunately, she believed me.

VIDers went to Selma and Montgomery, marched with King in Washington, hosted Fannie Lou Hamer, the inspiring Freedom Democrat from Mississsippi; and contributed regularly to civil rights fund-raisers—but never financed a Freedom House.

***

At least 50 VIDers participated in the King March on Washington in August, 1963. It was a day for America to remember, but those of us from the Village who were there had a special treat.

As we waited for the speakers who stood near the Lincoln Memorial, we could hear a chorus approaching us. Then, a band of exuberant black teenagers singing civil rights protest songs marched into our location. Their Pied Piper was Rev. Howard Moody, the first minister and progressive leader of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, who had arrived in Washington a day earlier. It was a joyous meeting between VIDers and the young singing group which we were told had come up from South Carolina to participate with the other quarter of a million marchers.

The King speech made history, but the vibrant, hopeful teenage singing made my day.

***

We have clearly come a long way. Obama reaching out to Lincoln is not a bad way to move us closer to a truly just society.

 

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