This presentation is about labels and what they mean to us. And yes, we all have them. This is clear for most of us. Even so, you will hear it this time in a way you have not heard it before.
The Fire This Time
“The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” This is a quote taken from the James Baldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time.
And so it was.
Just a short four years later, in the nation’s Capital, I would be standing in the midst of what seem like hell on earth. Some were running stumbling and falling. Others held on to all that they could as they ran in and out of the shops and stores. More than a few made sure there would be nothing left to burn. Even the bricks were ablaze and crumbling. They were all ages, sizes and shapes, but the one thing they had in common, they were all Black. The area was off-limits to us in the military if not a part of the operation, but I figured out a way around the restriction. I would don my government issued fatigues—our green non-dress uniform—to blend in.
Armed soldiers and military personnel were shouting orders but no one seem to be listening. They took no steps to stop the protestors/rioters. Their orders were to stand by, with weapons pointed down. Even as the buildings continued to burn, in places a corridor of flames, they stood by. The heat was intense, only matched by the intensity of the expressions on the faces of the young, and old alike, who were carting off as much as they could carry. It was a free for all. Though there was no doubt in my mind that some of them were there because of their anger. Dr. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated by the system in the form of James Earl Ray. You could expect no less. Oh the irony, when all the smoke cleared and the flames had been doused the guided as well as the misguided were left living among the ashes. The rage had given in to despair. The Black low-income neighborhoods had been reduced to ruin.
Just a few months before his death, Dr. King and leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held a meeting to plan and organize a Poor People’s Campaign for the coming spring in Washington, D.C. Organizers intended for the campaign to be a peaceful gathering of poor people from communities across the nation. They would march through the capital and visit various federal agencies in hopes of getting Congress to pass substantial anti-poverty legislation. They planned to stay until some action was taken.
The Poor People’s Campaign did not focus on just poor black people but addressed all poor people. As history records, before their plans could be realized, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Although feeling the sorrow of his death, a decision was made to carry on with the campaign. On May 12, 1968, the first wave of demonstrators arrived in Washington. One week later, Resurrection City was built on the Washington Mall. This was a ramshackle settlement of tents and shacks to house the protesters. And as I learned firsthand, to call it housing is being generous, at best.
This time I decide I want to take a close look at the other side of the protest, though still up close, but more personal. I had to focus my mind to take in what my eyes were seeing. Some wandered about with a sort of dazed look as just waking up to a bad dream, while others seemed to seek solace and refuge in their primitive accommodations. It was clear, to me, that most were taking on the symptoms of defeat. It would not take much—under these conditions—to become demoralized. People were hungry; there was not much food or at least an orderly way of providing it to those who needed it most, the young and the old. And there was mud all over and if you did not have boots, and most did not, you had to secure your shoes some place and do your moving about in bare feet. It was a mess. The mud seemed knee-deep in places. This was the heart of the “Poor Peoples” encampment. I went as I go to many other places. I was just curious, not much more than that. But what I saw caused me to return.
It was, to put it simply, a hopeless situation no matter how well intended. The King has died. There was a leadership vacuum; it could not be overcome. The best that I could do was pick several out of the multitude to take to the base for a hot meal and a break from the drudgery of living in such inhospitable conditions. And in two short weeks, I would be discharged from the Air Force and out in the “real world” myself. How was I to know though, that Chicago would be my next destination where destiny would wave its unseen hand, again. I did not know if I was creating my own destiny or it was being laid out for me. Either way, I would be there to see it all. It was not a plan, it just happened.
This is Chicago the time and place that the SCLC would try to resurrect the Poor People Campaign. It was not to be. The eyes of the nation were focused on the Democratic National Convention, the “other” event. Fate had dealt its hand and the cards had been played. It was inescapable, the end of the civil rights era was drawing to a close. There would be a last gasp and a whimper from the Black Power movement to be replaced years later with the rap and hip-hop culture. The sign of greeting is no longer Soul Brother, it has been replaced by my nigger. As it is plain to see, it was a turn by degrees for the worst. If they could only see us now. Time stands still as life moves on. Now here we are.
August 26 to August 29, 1968
I came here to Chicago to find a job, and see my father for the first time. Both of the things I did do. Even so, my mind would not let me rest. I could not resist the draw of the action on the streets leading up the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The convention was held during a year that would be remembered as a wakeup call and a warning to our nation. How easily it seems for us to forget.
Headline 2012: The Pentagon Is Offering Free Military Hardware to Every Police Department in the US
It was a social revolution with no blueprint. The Viet Nam war was in full force, and American “politics” had become a dangerous game in my lifetime. First, there was Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 and the civil unrest that followed. Two months after Dr. King’s death on June 5, as if timed by fate, came the murder of Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Was all of this some kind of test? Yes, it was, and the grades are still coming in. For me, it was as if I had been programmed—I did not think of this then—to be an up close witness to the contest of what is and what is not. I had to be there and did not know it, and had no choice. I quit my job not really knowing why.
My 21st birthday marked the beginning and what soon followed is best described as police brutality and all out “war” on the protestors. It was people control, a step to the future that could not be taken back. There were no hot burning flames of the riots in Washington. The soldiers in Washington had been ordered to stand at ease. It appeared that Mayor Daley had issued orders to “attack and destroy.” And they were followed to the letter. Even bystanders were not safe from the swinging batons if they could not run fast enough.
There were indiscriminate beatings it mattered not male or female, young or old they were routinely clubbed bloody. It was as close as you could get to gender equality. No one was exempt. One scene that was hard to put out of my mind was that of a young female protestor—with blood streaming down her ashen face—being dragged by her long blond hair; she was in shock. At this point, she had gone limp the “fight” had been beaten out of her. The only sign of life was a grimace and a moan when her head was allowed to hit the pavement. The cop only let go when he realized the cameras were trained on him. Up to then, it was “caveman.”
It was not the Chicago that I had come to love. I would soon be on my way home to Arkansas, I had seen enough. I now had the space to distance myself from the images in my mind.
Book Manuscript Excerpt: Part I Chapter Eleven (Abbreviated)
I Work Both Sides of The Tracks
When left to itself, the mind has no power of its own; it is powered by the world in which it exists.
There were times—though very few—when growing up that I did feel free to be me. This is when I was with my White friends. Yes, it was the South this is true. And separation of the races was still in force. I did not feel comfortable much of the time. This had nothing to do with issues of race. It was how I felt forced to think about things I rather not. But With my friends Cosby and Junior, I didn’t feel this way. Maybe it was because I knew they did not know the source of my pain. When I was with them, I did not even think about it. It did not cross my mind. It was great to be around them. When I was with either one, I felt like a person. I had no worries, I was happy.
I felt the same when I met their parents. Cosby’s folks owned Deadman Grocery store in Cullendale where Blacks and Whites shopped side by side, no White aisles and no Black. Yes, in the same store at the same time without a problem. If not for Cosby, I would not have had my paper route. He put in a good word at the Arkansas Democrat for me to take over from him he had grown out of it. He was older now and had several years on me. He has his driver’s license, and would soon have a car. Their Headquarters is in Little Rock, so it is possible they did not know that I was Black. I am all but sure I was the only Black paperboy in town. And I am for sure I would be the only one with both Black and White customers. My Black customers had to be nothing less than surprised and the Whites totally shocked. So it is more than likely that someone from the latter group called to find out what was going on. Apparently it did not matter if they did no one ever said a word to me.
My route followed a long and winding course. The delivery driver would drop off my papers just in front of the door to Deadman. It is an afternoon paper and I would try to have it on my customers’ porch by suppertime. I am on my way as fast as my legs could peddle just after the last school bell for the day. My first stop would place me in the White neighborhood. Black folks, young as well as old, knew not to walk through this area. But that was not enough to come between my customers and their paper. And they are always right. They wanted their paper, and I am the one who brings it to them. One thing I can say, they were comfortable with me—at least it seemed that way—and I with them.
Next, I cross the line that divides. It has the street name, Louisiana and the longest stretch runs along the railroad tracks. It seems to have been consciously drawn with race in mind. It is understood to be just what it is. It is the “color line.” Not so official yet observed as if it were. Well, I am not thinking about that, the only race on my mind is the race to get the papers delivered before suppertime. I am now on my way to my Black customers. They are from the better off to the barely making it, or so it seemed. It was a mix of socioeconomic factors playing out that were hard to miss. This is my most challenging area if only for the fact that not a week, or so, would pass without a flat tire. There was glass where there should have been grass.
This area was on the very fringe of the neighborhood. It was a subset of the Black area. At this point, I am still some distance from home. And I am pushing my bike, again. Half of my papers still left to deliver, and they were large. Much more so than the local paper. It’s back to the other side of the street. This time it would be a different White area. I say area because all the customers, on this part of my route, lived in this same neighborhood, just not the same area. Yes, that color line again. As I hit the last house, I am on my way to my community, Brown Hill, where there is no such line. There are still more papers to deliver before I can take the paper bag off for the day. These are “my Black folks,” I grew up around them. There is one thing I have always thought about, and still do not understand. The only customer that refused to pay is a Black person, a deacon at my church and a worker at the mill. I had a slim profit margin, and it took just one or two non-paying customers to put a dent in my pay. I had to buy all of my supplies, from the company, of course.
The paper is published out of Little Rock. It is now called the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and has more readers than any other paper in Arkansas. It covers state, regional and national news events, and of course sports and other issues of the day. So pretty much anyone who reads the paper is reading because of his or her interest in what it offers. They want to keep up with what is going on. This, no matter where they were on the ladder of success. Social rank and status seemed to make no difference. There is not a happy ending to this, though.
Three months after I started my paper route, my friend Cosby was killed in a fiery one car accident. He was alone. Now there were two, Junior Biggers, who I hung out with the most, and me. He is my sole riding partner now. His folks owned a number of businesses and had more than a few Black workers. Though Cosby and Junior were a different race from me, we had a lot of fun. And we had a thing or two in common. One thing that kept us running close is the three of us owned a Cushman motor scooter. Junior and I at the same time, his white and mine black. I had what no Black kids in town had, a brand new Cushman and White running buddies. I thought this was the thing, and it was.
I must take a break here for an anecdote; it is all part of the story and just as true. I shall return to where I left off.
Even before the sound died down from the last bell signaling the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation, the boys in my neighborhood would go on the watch for the arrival of the “summer birds.” These would be the nieces, cousins and granddaughters visiting from up North. They would be on a trip to see their relatives and we would be out to see them. Of course, only a few of us were able to meet the grade.
Part I Chapter Five
Not All Was What it Seemed to Be
Camden is where it happened for me. It is just down the road a piece—about 55 miles—from Hope. Hope is the home town of William Jefferson Clinton, known by most as Bill. Our Bill, you know, the one who was president. When I first visited Hope, Bill Clinton was just a kid around my age. He was and is a bit older. Who had ever heard of him. So, he is not what comes to mind when I think of Hope. Though, I am all but sure Bill Clinton made himself known to all who were within the sound of his voice, and beyond. No, what come to mind when I think of Hope are the large watermelons that they grow there. I do mean large, three times as large as you would see elsewhere. They have a deep green rind, juicy red meat and dark brown to black seeds. We all just loved to eat them and spit out the seeds. And they were a sight to see, as well. Folks are, to this day, still talking about them, and eating no less I am sure. They are legend. Hope is known for the largest watermelons in the world. This great accomplishment is celebrated each year with a festival that goes back to the 1920s. How did I get from a city street to a watermelon patch?
Well, at my school—the all mighty Lafayette Eagles—we had an agriculture class that all male students were required to take. We had not one but three years (?) of what at times could be a scary affair. Mr. Smith was our instructor. He was a short rotund man with no discernible features of note. There was nothing about him that stood out. He did have a limp that no one seem to notice or just did not let on that they did. Well, there is a thing or two that the women took notice of. He was single. He had never married. And was the most eligible bachelor in the area. He was sought after as if he dripped gold. That is until he surprised—I would go so far as to say shocked—everyone by getting married and fathering a son when he was in his late fifties or early sixties.
There was something about Mr. Smith that the women were attracted to other than his money and standing in the community. Could it have been something to do with the “mountain oysters” he ate? I wonder. One of his favorite things to do was to me very cruel and he would take some of us along. The owners wanted it done to their pigs. When asked he was more than willing to oblige all requests. Mr. Smith would castrate the young pigs by surgically removing both of their testes. And these he would keep for his consumption. We all thought it was gross, for his partners, maybe not. It was a painful thing for me to watch and it pains me even now to think about it. How painful this removal of the gonads must have been for the pigs in a physical sense and we do not know what it does to their mind. Yes, I do believe they have one, as I do for all animals.
The main reason for this barbaric procedure is to improve the taste and smell of the meat for the consumer. As repulsive as it is to think about, there is no doubt, there is an odor and flavor problem in cooked pork from intact males. Well, there will be no more sex for these guys. The testes—that produce the compounds involved in eliciting sexual behavior in gilts and sows during the mating process—have been taken. Mr. Smith knew best, I guess you could say. It seems he had always been the Ag. Teacher and would beat your back with what, at times, could be perceived as a perverse satisfaction. He would beat your back as if you had another one to offer when the one you have wears out. We are not talking buttocks here, which is bad enough. No, this is back as in the rear upper part of your body. These “whuppings” could be for almost any kind of offense. But more often than not, it would be for not doing what you had been told to do. Top of the list would be not turning in an assignment or not having the answer when called on in class. This would bring it on, as would just the hint of wrongdoing. Of course, wrongdoing is to be defined by him. If you miss church, his church, of which I was a member, you would get a beating. If you looked at him the wrong way, you guessed it.
But the worst of all beatings would be if Mr. Smith overheard you call him chuck. I never really knew why, other than during his football days that is what he was called and he had a limp from his battles on the field. Maybe that is it. Whatever the reason, he would lose it and any sense of control would be lost. What he would do to you then would be called assault today. He would turn your back into “chopped” meat. His weapon of choice was a very thick piece of leather, formal name, the strap. As when he would say, “come here Oboy, I am gonna beat your back.” “You’re just trifling, go get my strap.” Beginning in the first grade, or there about, you start to develop a fear of the dreadful day when you had to take shop. Not because of shop, but because of who would be teaching it.
Mr. Smith had a reputation and he lived up to it. It was well deserved. There were many prayers offered up, I am sure, for his demise. The parents loved him. He did slow down as he grew older, but he did not retire. Well, that is, until the schools were desegregated. He most assuredly was not going to lay a hand on the White students. I guess you could say we were better off for the experience. If nothing else and there was more, this is how I learned of the world’s largest watermelons. What a price we pay to learn. I must admit, I never received a beating from Mr. Smith, though I came close. I was actually one of his favorites, that is, until I let my impulsive nature get the best of me on a trip from the Ouachita County Fair. There are a couple of things worth noting; Mr. Smith was a good teacher. And usually, only those who deserved his wrath were on the receiving end of the strap. Some were set on the right path by his actions. And it was a learning experience for all.
When you take the agriculture class, you are signed up as a member of the New Farmers of America (NFA). We would visit the County Fair in Hope each year, mostly as a treat. Who knows, I may have brush shoulders with our future president. Not very likely, we were the NFA. The new was reserved for the Negro student. You cannot overlook the irony of saying that the descendants of slaves are new to farming. It is all we were allowed to do. And it was bred in us. The “future” was not yet ours to hold, however.
The future was reserved for the White student. They were the Future Farmers of America with all that came with it. Back then to wish you were White did not mean you wanted to be. You just wanted some, a little bit, of what Whites had. To have the freedom to be you, which we surely did not. Of course that was not to be. All we could do was look and dream. Our trails did not cross. The law of the South was separate but equal. This is a doctrine to justify what in reality will not be. Just as no two living things can be equal even with the best of intentions. And here, the real intent was to undermine federal mandates under the 14thamendment of the United States Constitution that guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens. It is a goal that will not be reached. It is just a myth, a false motivator in disguise. This will always be true when you need and have to ask for permission. No matter who or where you are.
I did not think of it much, if at all, then, but Camden was, and is, known more for other things than being within striking distance of Hope. They are worthy of note. First off, we have Susan McDougal. She could say no wrong against President Bill Clinton. Her home is in Camden. When asked by the Grand Jury if Bill Clinton lied in his testimony during the Whitewater trial, she refused to answer. This led to a jail sentence of 18 months for contempt of court.
There are others to be noted and are worthy of mention. Ne-Yo, who is an American pop, and R&B singer-songwriter and musician, is from Camden. So are brothers Stacy and Shaun Andrews, players in the National Football League. There are a couple of others, as well. Shaun revealed in a 2009 New York Times interview that he was suffering from depression. When commenting to a question he stated, “There’s some good and bad in there, if you know the song ‘Tears of a Clown,’ that would kind of describe my past a little bit up to now.” It brought back memories of when I would sing the same song, and another Smoky Robinson tune “Tracks of my Tears.”
Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, opened one of his first five and ten cent stores on Adams Avenue in my hometown. Now I am not so sure about Sam’s connection to Camden, but I take it to be true. The Grapette Company the maker of the “best grape soda ever made” was founded in Camden. It is the same formula that Walmart use in its “Sam’s Choice Grapette,” today. This is the short list. Camden is known for much more. For a small southern city, it has much to be proud of, or not. There are two chapters in its history that I would not celebrate or wave a flag for, no way. The one with the greatest impact, in my mind, is when the founding fathers made the decision to transport thousands of enslaved Blacks to the area to work on the cotton plantations. My grandfather’s kin were hauled in from Virginia much as you would move your prized cattle. Yes, they were victims of this mass crime against humanity. What is more despicable than the institution of slavery? It is dehumanization of the worst kind. This legacy was handed down to my mother from her father to me. The other sordid chapter is when the Confederates won the battle of Poison Springs on April 18, 1864. These are turning points and a stain on Camden’s history, as I see it. And so should history, a sense of honor it is not. What decent person would think so. Well, one the boll weevil took care of and the Union army did the rest. Camden is where I grew up and I did not know any of this then. It would not have made a difference. I was in my world.
I came of age there, if it could be called that, in the Brown Hill community. The brown in Brown Hill is not because of the color of its residents, but the name of its founder. Though it was and to this day still is a Black community. We had not grown proudly into Black in those days. When we talked about us, it was Negro. When we were talked to or about, it was niggra or colored. That is when the speaker was being polite, and there were more than a few times they were not, so it was just plain nigger.