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.