In the early 1960s, Tallahassee, Florida where I grew up was the site of multiple lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater protests. Many of these were organized by CORE and drew a fair amount of participation from students at the primarily black Florida A&M University. I was attending high school and college (FSU) in Tallahassee during these protests, but I wasn’t there.
My excuses for not being there are many, including:
- Tallahassee Police, who sided with the angry white on-lookers, we physically and verbally abusive.
- Protesters’ eyes were damaged by the use of tear gas.
- Protesters were fined and/or put in jail for violating a restraining order.
- The KKK threatened not only the Blacks but the scattering of whites who joined the picketing and lunch counter sit-ins. Burning crosses appeared in people’s front yards.
- Picketers were assaulted around town and once a person was identified, picketers were likely to have their yards filled with angry people.
- I wasn’t ready to take on the backlash that I’d be subjected to from high school and college students who had been my friends.
- I was sure I’d be fired from my jobs and that my participation would cause trouble for my father who was an FSU professor.
As FAMU student and CORE organizer Patricia Stephens Due–who was tear-gassed and ended up with permanent eye damage–said in her book Freedom in the Family–most Blacks weren’t there either even though the common perception is that they were a united front. Not so.
When I was working for Western Union across the street from the Florida Theater, it would have been easy to walk over there and join the pickets or sit at that lunch Woolworth’s lunch counter while on break. There’s an empty seat in the foreground of that lunch counter photo. Logically, it would have been easy to sit there, but when fear of the consequences takes over, it becomes emotionally impossible to sit there.
Looking back today, I’m embarrassed by my excuses and lack of courage.
Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel The Sun Singer is currently free on Kindle.