I led a sheltered life in my early childhood. From the outside, and to those who know me best, this would seem an odd statement. However, it is true, and you will soon see what I mean.
I grew up in the South in the 1960’s and 70’s, in a small town in North Florida (that is east of the panhandle, south of Georgia and north of Ocala for all non-Floridians). Just as most communities in the United States were at that time, we were more segregated than the country is today. There was considerable mistrust at that time. This was a period of assassinations, riots, protests and counter-protests, murder, an unpopular war (the first war televised, live, as it happened, into our homes), and forced school busing; the young did not trust the government because of the war, the bundled Warren Commission investigation, long lists of injustices, and the apparent unwillingness of the government to respond. The older people did not trust the government because of the unrest sweeping the nation. Young did not trust old, old did not trust young, black did not trust white, white did not trust black, Americans did not trust immigrants, and immigrants did not trust Americans. At a time when there was so much mistrust and danger, there was some comfort in living in a neighborhood with people who were like you. There were little Italy’s and China towns all across the nation. There were also black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. The segregation was not mandatory, as you will see, that had ended a few years before. In my town as an elementary school boy I was oblivious to all of the danger, stress, and tension of the times I lived in.
The year Florida started mandatory busing of schoolchildren was the year my family moved to a new school district. My parents were happy about this, my new school had a newer building, smaller classes of children, newer books (which we did not have to share with our classmates), and the roof did not leak.
Before forced school busing, you went to school in your neighborhood. We were very poor, and so was our neighborhood and school. We moved to a new middle class neighborhood with a new middle class school, and I was not happy. I did not know any of the students or teachers at my new school and my new surroundings were strange to me. At my old school, I had friends, I knew my teachers, and I knew my surroundings. There were bullies at my old school, but all schools have bullies. Some of the bullies would call me names because of my skin color, but bullies always find some difference to pick at; ask anyone with freckles, red hair, or a weight problem. I just ignored what the bullies said. As the only white kid in my class, all my friends were black and they didn’t mind that I was white, they treated me like everyone else. We traded food from our lunch bags at lunchtime, played cowboy and Indians at recess, and got into mischief during class. I was comfortable where I was, and I did not like going to a different school.
My first day at Silver Lake Elementary School I came home happy and excited, many of my friends from my old school were at my new school too. I was in third grade, I didn’t know what mandatory school busing was, and I did not know about the court battles and fighting that had gone on, or the protests. What I knew was that I went to school thinking I was going to be alone in a strange school, and I wasn’t. I had many of my friends in class with me. I could not wait to tell my parents. My mother was happy for me. All I remember of my dad was that he said, “We moved him out of that school.” I did not understand what he meant and did not know why he was upset, but I was happy.
That is how things were when I grew up in that little north Florida town. In public people were respectful of each other and kids were taught to say sir and ma’am. Yes, we had white people that did not like people because they were black. We also had black people who did not like people because they were white. But, it was considered to be rude and uncivilized to display your prejudices in public in front of children, and those who did were looked down on by the community, both black and white.
We owe this, in part, to the man who was our sheriff for more than four decades. On the surface, he seemed like the stereotypical southern sheriff Yankees like to make fun of. Walt had the slow southern drawl and didn’t seem to get excited about very many things, but he made it his business to know what was going on in his county. Walt also did not tolerate disturbances of the peace in his county. If you thought you were going to go to the north side of the town and light up the sky with burning crosses, you had better think again. Walt would come down like a ton of bricks on anyone trying to cause trouble in his county.
I remember the one time we had a big protest march at our courthouse. I was a sophomore in high school. At a school pep rally, we had a disturbance between a black boy and a white girl and the boy was suspended from school. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) said the boy accidentally brushed up against the girl in a hallway. The school rednecks said the boy took inappropriate liberties with the girl using his hands. The kids I knew near the incident (both black and white) said the boy shoved the girl while they were standing in the bleachers.
The SCLC was in town all week picketing the high school and had scheduled a protest march downtown, to start from the courthouse, on Saturday. The white racists in town were already talking about starting a riot with the protesters at the courthouse. All week we had news agencies from all around interviewing our sheriff, including television stations from Jacksonville.
The reporters would ask, “Sheriff what are you going to do?”
Walt would answer, in a slow southern drawl, “Well, if they have their permit I am going to let them march.”
“But sheriff what are you going to do about the anti-protest people?”
Walt would answer, “Well, if they have a permit, I am going to let them march too.”
The whole town was talking all week long about how this was going to be bad. Most people were planning staying at home or avoiding the downtown area. It seemed like the sheriff was going to treat Saturday like any other Saturday, and this could get real bad, real fast. Our town had never seen this kind of trouble before. While cities all over the country burned in race riots, Walt had kept the peace between the blacks and whites in our county. This just didn’t seem like Walt. The general opinion was that Walt was greatly under estimating the potential for disaster at this protest march.
Saturday came and the SCLC and their followers gathered at the courthouse, the white racists gather at the courthouse, and Walt and his deputies gathered at the courthouse. Also, at Walt’s request, police, deputies, and swat teams from every surrounding county and from as far away as Duval county (Jacksonville, Florida) gathered at the courthouse.
A friend of mine, much braver than me, went down to see what was going to happen. He said, Walt checked the permit of the SCLC, then after he was satisfied their permit was in order, he told them to go ahead with their march. Mike said Walt then turned to the crowd of troublemakers and asked them for their permit. When they didn’t present a permit, he told them they were violating the law and if they didn’t break up and go home he was going to run them all in. The SCLC had their march, and the troublemakers went home. Mike said the only trouble was when someone’s dog bit someone. A few words passed and then nothing.
Walt kept our county safe and quiet, the whole county not just part of the county. Walt was rewarded for that by both the blacks and the whites in our county. Every four years Walt ran for re-election. Every four years the county voted for Walt again, except for the family of a republican from Crescent City that ran against Walt, every four years. If Walt had served out different forms of justice for different sides of town we would have had the same problems they had in places like Birmingham, Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, and Los Angeles By having one law for all and enforcing one law for all, Walt kept the peace in our small town. There was a tolerance and a mutual respect that America has lost in the last forty years.
Now, I told you that story to tell you this story.
Several years before Palatka’s brush with state wide celebrity status. My family moved again. This time we moved into town and my new school was Moseley Elementary School. That first summer I would ride my bicycle down to the St. Johns River, fishing pole tied to my handlebars.
I had found a nice quiet place to fish under the shade of an old live oak tree. Just south of the boat marina was a long row of nice houses from Palatka’s heyday as a steamboat town in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that earlier time Palatka had more hotels than Jacksonville and paddlewheelers on the river were still the easiest form of travel in the area. The row of houses reflected that earlier time. The stretch of land between the road and the river, across from the houses, had no structures on it. Grass and a few live oak trees with the river for a background was the only view from the porches of those big houses. If you minded your own business, were well behaved, and cleaned up after yourself you could sit on the breakwater, in the shade of a live oak tree, dangle your feet in the mighty St. Johns River, and fish to your heart’s content.
That was where I met my fishing buddy. He was old enough to be my grandfather. He taught me about fishing the St. Johns River, and how to cook mullet without it tasting muddy (but that is another story).
I never knew his name, I always called him sir, and he never called me by my name he always called me sir. That bothered me. I was taught that children always call grownups sir or ma’am, and here was a man old enough to be my grandfather calling me sir. I talked with my mother about it. She explained to me that a long time ago, black men always said sir to white people. He did not mean anything by it, it was how his parents raised him. I did not understand any of this; I was just an elementary school boy spending my summer fishing. My mother suggested I let it go and I did. Now, I wish I knew his name, but I guess in a way there is some kind of poetry in not knowing. He taught me more about fishing than anyone has, before or since, and I have had some good teachers (but that is another story). More important he taught me about life. He taught me to accept people as I find them and to accept them as they are. He taught me that no matter what life throws your way, there is good in people, trust them. He taught me that there are always people coming up behind you, teach them. And, he taught me that life’s greatest pleasures come in the smallest things, like dangling your bare feet in the St. Johns River.
There were things that he did not teach me too. He did not teach me about the bad side of life. A side of life that he saw with his own eyes. He did not teach me about a society that expected a grown man to call a boy “sir.” Instead of passing on hate to yet another generation, he took me under his arm. He treated me as the grandson I could have been. When I looked into his eyes, I saw a wise and loving grandfatherly figure. I never knew, from him, the pain those same eyes had also witnessed.
You say African-American, I say Black, the generation before me said Negro, and the generation before them said Colored. You see we are not perfect, and we carry the wounds of life with us, but you do the best you can and you keep moving forward. Palatka was not perfect, it had its problems. Sheriff Walt was not perfect and had many problems to deal with, both as sheriff and as a man. But, that was a community in a time and place that protected its children as best as it could, all its children; while the rest of the world seemed to be burning itself down in rage. It was a community that in some cases presented a much more tolerant image to its children than really existed. But is that a bad thing? Our children are our future, and we want them to be better than we were, so why wouldn’t we put our best in front of them. Why wouldn’t we show our children what we want them to be, what we wished we were, and not what we are?
To all those people in that little river town who put their best image in front of me … thank you. To Mr. O’Rourke, Hosea, John the mailman, John the art teacher, to the crab lady, and to big Pete, Gadabout Gaddis, “uncle” John, Mr. P, Mr. V, and Bill Turnbull, and to so many others I cannot name, thank you. Lastly, thank you to my fishing buddy, wherever you are.