Friday, February 09, 2007


By William Fisher

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has written a couple of gut-wrenching columns recently about Gary Tyler, a 16-year-old black youth who in 1974 was accused of murdering a 13-year-old white boy outside the high school they attended in Destrehan, Louisiana.

Herbert recounts how “the boy was shot to death in the midst of turmoil over school integration, which the local whites were resisting violently.
The case against young Tyler — who was on a bus with other black students that was attacked by about 200 whites — was built on bogus evidence and coerced testimony. But that was enough to get him convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair. His life was spared when the Louisiana death penalty was ruled unconstitutional, but he is serving out a life sentence with no chance of parole in the state penitentiary at Angola.”

Herbert writes that “his mother’s sharpest memory of the day Gary was arrested was of sitting in a room at a sheriff’s station, listening to deputies in the next room savagely beating her son.”

After I got my outrage under control, I remembered scenes from 20 years earlier, when I was a cub reporter for a newspaper in Central Florida – then known as the state’s Bible Belt.

One of my beats was what my managing editor called C&C – cops and courts. They gave me the grand title of Bureau Chief and sent me twenty miles away to the county seat. There, covering the local police, the county sheriff, and the county court offered an eye-opening – and terrifying – glimpse into the abyss of the Jim Crow south. For a young Yankee reporter from New York, it was a never-to-be-forgotten education.

Saturday nights were always the busiest for this fledgling journalist. That’s when a couple of dozen sheriff’s deputies got into their patrol cars and headed for “colored town” – the county seat’s ghetto where the dirt-poor African-Americans lived.

They swept in like the 101st airborne, arresting virtually anything that moved. Men and women – and the occasional child – caught up in the sweep were hustled into waiting paddy-wagons and dispatched back to the sheriff’s station. There, they were put behind bars and charged with a variety of heinous crimes – loitering was the most common. If they could post a $25 cash bond, they got out of jail. If not, they stayed locked up.

The sheriff and his deputies much preferred getting the cash, because back in those days they were paid on the “fee system,” i.e., their salaries were substantially composed of a percentage of the fines they collected from the “nigras.”

The later it got, the more arrests were made. It was Saturday night in “colored town.” People drank. Some got into fights. Occasionally there were knifings. The suspects in these crimes were, like their earlier neighbors, hustled off to jail.

For them, there were no $25 bonds. They were quickly put into tiny cells, where most of them remained through their arraignments and until their trials – sometimes for many months. Bail was an unmentionable.

Likewise, legal aid, as we now understand it, was non-existent. The town’s lawyers were ordered by the local bar association and the judge to represent the accused on a rotating pro-bono basis. And since they weren’t about to give up their own Saturday nights, they rarely appeared until Monday morning. By that time, many of the often-illiterate suspects had placed their “mark” on confessions, largely obtained through empty promises of freedom and/or brutal beatings. The sheriff and his deputies were particularly fond of arresting couples, and then sexually abusing a wife to extract a confession from her husband.

Customarily, the next time I saw these people was when they came before the county judge for trial. Their lawyers were often unaware of the charges, since they hadn’t bothered to read the court papers and police reports. Evidence of coerced confessions was routinely excluded, usually without the slightest hint of an objection from the defense lawyers. Juries were, predictably, all-white and
all-male. Some of the attorneys appointed to defend the suspects showed up in court drunk, or with Saturday night hangovers. Many literally slept through the trials.

The next stop for most of these convicted felons was the state prison at Raiford, then widely acknowledged to be one of the more notoriously cruel and overcrowded penal institutions in the country. There were few appeals; appeals cost money.

That was justice in Central Florida in the 1950s, and things only got worse for black citizens after the civil rights movement started to gather steam.

Things didn’t get much better for me either. In addition to writing stories for the paper that paid my salary – which, to their great credit, often got page one above-the-fold treatment -- I started filing articles for the Baltimore Afro-American, one of the oldest black newspapers in the country. They paid me five cents a word. I wrote about what I was seeing on the C&C beat. They also published photos that I shot with my ancient Speed Graphic camera.

Somehow, that information got back to the sheriff, who one morning appeared in my office and, in his laconic Southern drawl, let me know that hanging around his sleepy cowtown could be damaging to my health. Before long, my editors, concerned for my well-being, called me back to the main office.

With the arrival of Disney, lots of Northern retirees, Supreme Court decisions, and dramatic demographic shifts, Central Florida gradually changed. The county sheriff’s department now boasts of its diversity, and I doubt there are any more Saturday Night Massacres these days.

Which is not to say that racial discrimination has gone away. Doubtless poor African-Americans still get arrested, still get represented by incompetent lawyers, still get convicted at far higher rates than white defendants.

But if racial bias in Central Florida hasn’t gone away, it’s certainly become more subtle. If you’re an African-American, you might be concerned about whether your polling place is going to have enough voting machines. And you’re probably less worried about getting shipped off to jail than about getting a business loan from a bank or a mortgage to buy property in a white neighborhood.

I guess that’s progress. Especially if one looks back less than a generation. Which is probably a worthwhile thing to do during Black History Month. And every other month.


  1. Thanks for your comments prompted by Bob Herbert's series
    on Gary Tyler.

    Below is a link to Free Gary Tyler web-site.
    FYI: We have permission from Gary and his family for this web-site.

    For more information on Gary Tyler
    and to sign the petition
    to Free Gary Tyler go to:

  2. I am not forwarding this column to anyone, nor recommending your columns, because (1) they're almost impossible to read, with that wimpy print on a stupidly-decorated background, and (2) you make it very difficult to respond.

    It isn't about race in Florida, and I defy you to claim there is no racism "up north." A very dark-skinned friend of mine lives in Boston, and I have seen her subjected to more harassment there than she ever was in Orlando.

    It's about money.

    The gap between the rich and the just-making-it is -- as in the neighborhoods decimated by Katrina -- what let John Ellis and his band of thieves get away with disenfranchising hundreds of thousand of voters, while the media remained silent about his mistress Katty Harris.

    I'm white, with a doctorate in engineering, and for many years was one of the "privileged," although I tutored poor kids on the side, so I knew what their reality was. As soon as Chicken George deported my job to India, I became a target of the fatsos in green, because I could no longer be considered a campaign (or "correct church") donor.

    Economic disparity is not a topic for one month. The concentration of massive wealth in fewer and fewer hands, while more and more people live on the edge of not just poverty, but slavery, is not "Jim Crow." It's the BushDicks.

    Go to any hotel around Mouseworld, and your maid is as likely to be white or Latino as black. Same for any restaurant. Same for any gas station. Same for ANY job that hasn't been sent overseas, or squatted on by fatcat managers (like the incompetent yes-boy inner circle at NASA).

    Most of the people in jail are white, and I don't mean just the guards. But most of the people in jail, unlike Ken Lay, hadn't stolen enough to be able to afford lawyers.

  3. As an African American (from Zimbabwe) I always appreciate the words of well meaning white liberals and I find myself saying "awww, how nice" as they opine about the follies of the American South both yesteryear and today.

    What is usually missing from such a sentimental solliloquy's (sp?) is an acknowledgment of the historical perspective of racism beyond southern boarders i.e. in the north, west and east both codified and uncodified.

    I lived in Western Pernnsylvania in from 1990 - 1994 and once was told by my white photographer roomate that I should not be alarmed to see developing photo's of a local KKK rally. Of course, she was only there for the magnificent black and white color contrast photo's that would be her prize. To be fair I sensed more anxiety from my white friend about what she was to witness and less on my behalf of how I would react. Had I not sensed her anxiety, I would have probably moved out. I believe she had a genuine disdain for the KKK but until faced with having to articulate her disdain to her new black friend, she had not quite known what that kind of disdain felt like, thus her loss for words.

    While my African American perspective is infused with a southern african colonial twist, I find the minimizing of Jim Crow in terms of north versus south much like the minimizing of effect of colonialsim between the different continental powers. Where the French worse than the Portuguese who ravaged Mozambique or were my own English Rhodesian colonials who begat Ian Smith the worst? What about the Italians and of course the centuries old Arabs who intermarried with African and co-opted African culture in order to achieve religious longevity?

    Southern racism may have been overt, and crude much like apartheid, but the sublties of northern racism were much more difficult to navigate. The police station you described could just as well have been in downtown Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City or even Chicago or Detroit. The verbage may have been different in th 1950 based on dialects but an understanding of Jim Crow was not.

    I enjoyed reading the article and I too lament over what we call progress when it comes to African Americans. Perhaps it all comes down to a truism - talking about things openly can lead us far. I have to believe that's what Mandela and Bishop Tutu had in mind with the truth and reconciliation committee.

  4. Well, the Jim Crow convicted felon vote disenfranchisement law in Florida in 2000 made George W. Bush president of the United States. And in 2004, most of the same people were being disenfranchised by the same law. The problem in that swing state seems to be far more immediate than you want to believe.

  5. Jim Crow in now called Fighting Terrorism. The fundamental actions
    are the same, the targets very similar. Those who are seen as beneficiaries of the NEW SOUTH are
    nothing more than agents. The sense
    of our Congress makes no concessions to the Congressional Black Caucus. Though some 16,500
    African Americans hold public off as compared with 350 or so in 1972,
    the locus of American activity remains the same, who ever get elected/selected as President. Even
    if a person who looks like Tyler is favored you will know he or she is an agent spawned by American
    thinking. In that sense, nothing has changed from the 1950s.