Thursday, April 10, 2008

Peering Into the Racial Divide

By William Fisher

Last week, the central Florida newspaper that gave me my start in journalism ran a story based on a 1950s reminiscence I wrote for Huffington Post.

My column recounted how, as a cub reporter, I witnessed the every-weekend mass and indiscriminate arrests of African-Americans by a posse of sheriff’s deputies from Volusia County, aided by local cops from the town of DeLand, where I ran the county seat bureau.

Back in those days, law enforcement departments operated on the “fee system.” That means they got a slice of the fines they collected, and that determined their annual budgets.

I wrote about men and women being arrested during these sorties into “colored town,” jailed without access to lawyers, eventually given court-appointed lawyers who showed up unprepared, or who were so hung over from their weekend revelries that they were incoherent or slept through their clients’ hearings.

Here’s a link to the story published by the Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 7.

And here’s a link to my original March 18 Huffington Post story.

What intrigued me most about this trip down memory lane were the comments posted by readers of the News-Journal’s article. These remarks tell me that racism is still alive and well on what is often called “The Redneck Riviera” – but that, unlike my experience there half a century ago, there are many who have refused to drink the Klan’s Kool-Aid.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the reader comments:

A guy named Dan wrote, “Why don’t you put this crap on black month and get over it!!!!!!”

And Dan had more than his share of cheerleaders.

One, identified as “whitey”, opined: “The liberal media will do anything, anytime, to stir the white/black pot. That's how many liberals make their living. I guess nobody called in any news to the Journal. So not being able to find their way around the streets of Volusia County, the News Journal crew went to their library to see if they could dig up some really old news. Well they did. Does anybody wonder why Rush Limbaugh labeled them all as ‘The drive by Media’? That's exactly what they are.”

Then there was Joe from Daytona, who wrote, “It’s interesting when you read the original article. With easy facts being wrong, such as 1952 being more than 45 years ago, rather than the 56 it really is. With his comments that Black people are directed to the wrong polling places (because of racism). With his failure to mention that Volusia was one of the first integrated Sheriff Departments in the state. With his implications that racism is still institutionalized here, while providing no examples. With all those things, it makes everything he wrote questionable. It almost seems like his memories are crafted by Hillary Clinton. Did he see any snipers?”

And “WhiterNU”, who wrote, “What you need to do is tell that to a ‘big, black, young-buck’. He'll remind you just how much you fear black people. I hope that you get a black president. When he's elected, I'll be laughing at you! LOL LOL LOL!!! Redneck garbage is what you are. I'll take black families as neighbors every time over white trash like you. Your momma should have aborted you. But that would have reduced her welfare benefits, thus necessitating, turning tricks again.”

And “Dizzy – Huh,” whose comment was, “Jimmy Crack Crow and I don't care, Jimmy Crack Crow and I don't care, my master's gone away!”

And “bohog” from Daytona Beach. His comment: “Now, This is what I would called racism. This does not exist in today's world, but black people still thinks it does.”

But these folks faced a lot of opposition as well as praise.

Dan caught a lot of flak. One reader wrote, “Hey Dan. You need to get a life, and open your eyes. Articles such as this should be presented whenever they are needed to make the general public, or should I say educated public, that racist practices must be eliminated. You get over it and wise up.”

And Gail from Palm Coast, wrote, “I hear that they're having a white sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Time for you to stock up on some white sheets for your gatherings.”

Another reader responded to Dan: “Good one. LOL Dan's just a racist idiot that must have lost his wife or girlfriend to a bro. You'll find that out the more of his posts you see. I think really all he does is come on here to try to start sh**! Idiot from the word gooooooooo!”

Yet another, “Wlindsey” from Port Orange, wrote: “We're clearly a community in need of racial healing. All the more reason to celebrate the heritage of Mary McLeod Bethune and the college she founded, which tries to bring blacks and whites together and heal the deep wounds of racial division by inclusive conversation and a curriculum centered on social justice.”

Many readers questioned the role of the media in presenting news in its historical context. For example:

“Fed Up – Florida” wrote, “It must have been a slow news day. This reporter went to a history book and decided it was news.”

“Jim” from Ormond Beach wrote, “ This is history, not news. Stories like this are frequently published, however, to fulfill their liberal agenda of keeping racial divisions alive for the political gain of Democrats. Too bad we'll never read an inspiring account about one of the hundreds of millions of Americans that have bettered their lives because of this nation. Freedom is now taken for granted by too many people, and because of this politicians continue to take it away bit by bit everyday. So sad.”

And “Active O” wrote, “I'm not reading this NEWS PAPER for a history lesson... and make no mistake... this is HISTORY... history would be... (A chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution... often including an explanation of their causes)... it is NOT to be confused with NEWS... (A report of recent events b: Previously unknown information) get it??? Jim Crow died... DEAD... put in the grave in the mid-1960's... thanks to you and the News-Journal for assuming a history lesson was in order here... but for my part... your assumptions are sickeningly incorrect! Thanks anyway!”

But “andy ray” from Deltona disagreed. “You can't get to where you are going unless you know where you have been.”

Another reader said, “Thanks for this insightful historical piece. It must be awful to read these comments and be criticized for doing your job by educating and informing. Any story about race draws the ignorant. I guess people would rather sweep it under the rug and blame the media for propagating. Keep on chugging; your work is appreciated.”

And “Marley” reminded Jim: “History can serve as a reminder of today’s news, after all, history repeats itself, especially with the ignorant.”

Finally, “DlndChic” weighed in with “Quoting Rush Limbaugh doesn't show much intelligence…I'm blessed and thankful for those who are willing to keep their hearts and minds open. Only the ignorant will repeat mistakes made by others. The more intelligent will learn from them.”

I happily cast my lot with “DlandChic.” We scriveners cherish “those who are willing to keep their hearts and minds open.” We hope they will learn from our efforts to present the past as well as the present. In the news business, it’s called “context.”

Journalists who do their work without it do all of us a disservice.