By William Fisher
It was 55 years ago. I was a cub reporter for the Daytona Beach (Florida) News Journal, an AM-PM family-owned daily with a circulation of something under 100,000.
Daytona Beach was a kind of sleepy beach town in those days. But that was before NASCAR. Before changing demographics started sending retirees. And before there was a Disneyworld, which later attracted millions more tourists to nearly Orlando.
Daytona Beach is located in Volusia County. Fifty-five years ago, it was cited in sociology textbooks – including the one I used in college -- as the most corrupt county in the United States. The county and most of its officials were in the pockets of the Coca Cola Company and the Florida East Coast Railway. Law enforcement officers were paid on the “fee system”, meaning they got so much per head for people they arrested.
And, since 55 years ago Jim Crow was the law of the south, most of those who were arrested were African-American or, as the locals called them, “nigras”.
The county seat, a redneck cow-town named Deland, was about 25 miles from Daytona Beach. That’s where I happened to attend college – Stetson University, then a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist institution that was convinced that dancing led to pregnancy – and banned the word dancing from the college newspaper, which I edited.
Deland was the place the newspaper eventually sent me to cover cops and courts. It was a heady experience; my title was Bureau Chief. There was one other fulltime person in our bureau.
Being a young and idealistic wanabee journalist, I wrote a lot of pieces about the so-called justice system in Deland, especially the treatment of blacks, which included routine weekend evening raids by the cops into “nigratown”, and the arrest of just about anything that moved.
If you were among the unlucky folks who found themselves in the county jail, it would cost you a $25 bond to get sprung. Back then, $25 was a lot of money, especially for these poor black folks.
I also wrote about the fee system, the rubber-stamp court, and the inherent injustice and dysfunctionality of both.
That wasn’t so unusual because, as I said, I was young and idealistic. What was unusual was that the Daytona Beach News-Journal ran many of these stories, some on page one above the fold.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Muckraking journalism was something of a tradition in the Davidson family, which owned and ran my newspaper. The publisher was Herbert Davidson, and when I was in Daytona Beach, I could watch him sucking on his pipe, always animated, pacing, his bald head threatening to cause snow-blindness among the troops in the newsroom.
My boss was his son, Tippen Davidson, who cut his journalistic teeth working for the old Chicago News Bureau, where it was S.O.P. for a reporter to phone a family to say, “Do you know your son was just killed in a car crash?” Though young, Tip was one of those old-fashioned news people who were desperately unhappy unless they were racing around the newsroom ripping paragraphs of copy out of reports’ typewriters (yes, typewriters).
The chief editorial writer was a kindly old gent who taught me to use the teletype machine, but whose principal talent was syntactically poking his thumb in the eyes of on-the-take local officials, sweetheart contracts, and similar corruption. He had no shortage of subject matter.
I was proud of my newspaper. And I was even prouder last week when, surfing the web, I stumbled across a citation for a web page from the News Journal. It was a blistering editorial excoriating the FBI. The headline read, “Protesting is Not Terrorism -- So why is the FBI policing democracy as if it is?”
The editorial was about the FBI snooping on peaceful demonstrations. It said the Patriot Act “has given the agency the rationale to spy on and infiltrate protest and advocacy groups in their meeting rooms, in their online discussion groups, in their organizational sessions as well as during demonstrations. The breadth of the spying and surveillance operations is such that the FBI has monitored even such harmless organizations as Food Not Bombs, which feeds the homeless.”
It concluded that the FBI “has redefined domestic terrorism so broadly as to include acts that ‘intimidate or coerce a civilian population’ or ‘influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.’ From there to defining a mass anti-war demonstration as ‘intimidation’ or ‘coercion’ is a small step, which the FBI has been all too glad to take. We're back to the ways of the 1960s, when FBI and CIA tentacles extended, illegally, into student protest groups, with this difference: This time, the tentacles are backed by law, according to the FBI's interpretations. If that's the case, it isn't just the FBI that's misguided. It's what passes for law.”
The paper’s current editor is Marc Davidson, Tip’s son. The Davidson family still owns the much-expanded paper, and it’s heartening to know that it hasn’t sold out to some multimedia conglomerate, and that it’s still prepared to speak out against injustice.