By William Fisher
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the National Newspaper Publishers Association – the organization representing the nation’s 200--plus black-owned newspapers -- named Barack Obama as the winner of its Newsmaker of the Year Award this week.
It was a no-brainer. Not since the time of Martin Luther King has any African-American made as much news as Senator Obama.
Given the ill-concealed race and gender issues raised during this nomination contest, it is possible Mr. Obama has mixed feelings about this award. There are many who will simply see it as further confirmation that he is the African-American candidate – not the candidate of all the people. And doubtless, some of his opponents will attempt to frame it that way.
Politicians will do what politicians do – anything to win.
For me, however, this award has a deeper meaning. Because it takes me back more than forty-five years to a time when the Obama phenomenon would have been unthinkable.
The year was 1950. I was a cub reporter for Daytona Beach, Florida, News-Journal, a remarkably progressive daily newspaper.
After some months, my editors assigned me to run their two-reporter County Seat Bureau, located in a small town called Deland. I knew something about Deland because I had done my undergraduate work there at an institution blessed by the Southern Baptists. Located in the heart of the central Florida redneck bible-belt, Deland was what most sociology textbooks at the time described as the most corrupt county in the United States. It was largely controlled by the Coca Cola Company and the Florida East Coast Railroad.
The News-Journal gave me the grand title of Bureau Chief. My beat was what my managing editor called C&C – Cops and Courts. I covered the local police, the county sheriff, and the county court.
For a young Yankee reporter from New York, the experience offered an eye-opening – and terrifying – glimpse into the abyss of the Jim Crow south.
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 – were caught up in the sweep, hustled into waiting paddywagons, 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 folks they arrested.
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. But, as I watched, it was clear to me that most of the arrestees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the suspects were nevertheless hustled off to jail.
For most of them, a $25 bond was not an option. They were quickly put into tiny cells, where most of them remained through their arraignments and until their trials – sometimes for many months.
Likewise, legal aid, as we now understand it, was virtually non-existent. The county’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 saw their “clients” 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. Others literally slept through the trials.
The next stop for most of those convicted of felonies was the state prison at Raiford, then widely acknowledged to be one of the more notoriously cruel, badly managed and overcrowded penal institutions in the country. There were few appeals; appeals cost money.
That was justice for African-Americans in Central Florida in the 1950s, and things only got worse for black citizens after the civil rights movement started to attract attention.
Things didn’t get much better for me either. Because, in addition to writing stories for the paper that paid my salary, I got a job free-lancing for the Baltimore Afro-American, one of the oldest black newspapers in the country. They paid me five cents a word, and I filed stories about what I was seeing on the C&C beat, including the cops’ Saturday night invasions of “nigratown.” 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, transferred 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 – both the local police and the country sheriff’s office now have African-American officers. 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 disproportionately pulled over in traffic stops, still get represented by incompetent lawyers, and still get convicted at far higher rates than white defendants.
But if racial bigotry in Central Florida hasn’t gone away, it has certainly become more subtle. If you’re an African-American, you might be more concerned about whether someone has intentionally sent you to the wrong polling place or if your polling place is going to have enough voting machines. 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.
Now what has this ancient history have to do with Barack Obama? At least three things.
First, against our country’s sordid background of slavery and racial bigotry, why should we be surprised or embarrassed that race has become a campaign issue? Was it not bound to be? America has never had a serious national conversation about race. And it’s a potentially informative conversation we need to have.
Second, we’re not having it. Instead, win-at-any-cost politicians are busy playing the “race card” – Barack Obama is not merely a capable candidate running a good campaign. He’s the African-American candidate. Which is a not-so-subtle way of telling voters that black Americans will vote for him, but the rest of us need to remember he’s “not like us.”
Finally, think of the cops’ Saturday night sorties into Deland’s “nigratown”. Think of Billie Holiday wailing “Strange Fruit.” Think of John Lewis at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. Think of “I Have a Dream.” Think of how Dr. King’s life ended.
Think of where America has been, and there’s no word other than remarkable that an African-American man with funny name might just be the next guy behind the desk in the Oval Office.
And answering the phone at 3 A.M.