Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fifty Years Ago, by Charles "Chuck" Siler

May 26th is a special day in my life. Fifty years ago, I was a part of the graduating class at McKinley High in Baton Rouge. We broke the peace. This was back in the good old days for some and the beginning of the end of segregation in that city. In March of that year, Students from Southern University had begun sit in and a mass march had upset the applecart and joined the protests that were being mounted around the south.

When the news broke our campus was put on “lock down.” There was a disturbance in the force of racism.

Some of us at McKinley and a few from other schools were anxious to join the growing movement and do something. We had to determine what. That took time because we were close to finishing and there were subtle threats that indicated we could suddenly find us expelled. Things turned serious.

A few of our teachers explained the motivation behind the sit-ins and the protest march led by Southern students. The names Marvin Robinson, Donald Moss and Major Johns come to mind. Students from the Southern University Laboratory School, Capitol Avenue and Scotlandville were talking but it took time before there was any action.

Betty Jones, Enola Price, Moses Edwards and Theodis Washington were the names of my classmates that come to mind at this writing. We discussed ideas and made plans for direct action that could be taken.

We were flying under the radar so our tests went unnoticed at first. Ultimately, our target became the State Library system.

The City-Parish system was closed to us and we tried to secure cards and admission, we were refused. We were referred to Carver Branch Library and reminded that our schools had libraries. Of course, much of what we needed wasn’t present at that time because separate wasn’t equal. The books supplied to Carver and McKinley’s school library were inadequate to our educational needs. That didn’t matter to the white administrators who still held to the belief that we didn’t need an education to be subordinate to them. Mrs. Bennett (Carver) and Ms. Ampey (McKinley) tried to obtain those books that would benefit us and did a better job than most. I assisted in the school library and know that Ms. Ampey sometimes went into her own pocket to find books that we needed. Mrs. Bennett at Carver was familiar with me because during the summer when it was hot, the library was the coolest place, literally, to read. We, then, targeted the State Library and, again, were refused. This gave us the evidence that we needed to justify further action.

May came and our efforts went unnoticed because they were isolated incidents and we didn’t protest loudly. We continued planning and considered a plan that would work and protect us from the possibility of expulsion, deciding to wait until we had finished our final examinations and were cleared for graduation. There were enough activities going on to help cover our plans during that period as we prepared for the big day.

Once examinations were finished, class ranks were determined and those who would be getting scholarship assistance to attend college had been established. Most of those who participated were among the top students in our class. We didn’t want the underclassmen to risk their futures because, technically, we were finished with our high school studies. Then things hit the fan.

At first, the pickets were cited on the radio news. There were the usual growls and threats from our “leaders” but we returned with our signs. I recall that some of the guys in Mr. Poydras’ art class were among those who made the signs that we carried and slipped out of school to use when we marched in front of the downtown library. My family realized when I was involved when I appeared in the line carrying a picket sign.

Naturally intimidation was attempted and we were threatened with expulsion and denial of our right to graduation. I will never forget a comment that flew from (I think it was Moses) when we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed to march. “Who are you going to give our scholarships to?”

The look on Mr. Thomas’ (our principal) face was worth all of the effort that had been made. We left and someone else commented, “I think Julius was upset.” We had a good laugh and went on planning.

(PHOTO: Freedom marchers cross the Amite river on their way from Bogalusa to the state capitol in Baton Rouge).

Then threats were made against others who were not involved and we did have commitment to family and classmates. It only delayed the inevitable though we backed off. The NAACP Youth council was formed and many of us became a part of that organization because we were going to be some of those that caused some to declare that “Negroes Ain’t Acting like Colored People.”

There were other quiet efforts, such as our attempts to enter Louisiana State University, which were rejected because we didn’t mark the box labeled “race” and/or the information that indicated the schools that we had attended. The real reason being – we were not white. Our test scores show that we were damn well qualified but not to attend the states’ “flagship” university.

Eddie Brown was one of my heroes because he was involved in the leadership of the Southern University and an inspiration to many of us who had grown tired of the treatment. My friend Mayo Brew in Winnfield had Donald Moss as inspiration and wound up with a gun to his head for attempting to integrate the library in his hometown.

It was a time when I gained respect for those teachers who supported us quietly and encouraged us to keep on “keeping on.” I lost respect for many of those who declared their Christianity but were too frightened to be radical like their “lord and savior” who was, according to their bible, crucified because of his efforts. It was a time when I began to question my faith and began a search for truth that led me to my current philosophical place.

In 2003, while at the State Museum, Sailor Jackson and I pulled together a program on the 50th Anniversary of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. I was invited to be a speaker at LSU as part of a panel discussing that event. I talked about other heroes – Willis V. Reed being one of mine because of his unflagging resistance to, and understanding of the depth of racism in our society.

I also noted that LSU did me a favor by refusing me because, had they not, I would never had received the nurturing that was available at Southern – Felton Grandison notwithstanding. It was there that I met Adolph Reed, Sr., Huel Perkins, Henry Cobb, Roscoe Leonard, Ray Lockett, Ruby Henton and others who didn’t quit encouraging me to be the best despite what we faced away from the school environment.

I can recall the “deep” discussion that Hubert Brown and I had hitchhiking home from campus at a time when even that simple act was dangerous if you were black. Hubert became “H Rap” and was railroaded into the federal penitentiary system as Imam Jamil Addullah. I, for one, found enough holes in the lies told about him to never believe him guilty.

I’m older and still cynical. Many of those on my cartoon list respond and let me know when I’m “on target.” I am still an enemy of the systemic racism that is pervasive and ongoing despite those who claim that we are in a “post racial society”. I’m not one who believes that lie.
When I was a part of the initial development of the State Civil Rights Museum, I discovered that I was “too radical” for those who were “politically white” because I am, politically, “black.”

I am one who believes that more than ever we need our Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help insure and validate our identities. I recall that my son, while an undergraduate at Xavier, enjoyed being Daniel – NOT a “minority” or “member of a group” but an individual. In graduate school he won’t be one of those who buys the lie because we have tried to make sure that he know who he IS.

After fifty years, WHO I AM is still a part of the discovery process that is life.

I can’t remember all of the names of those who fought and, hopefully, are still doing so in their own way. I hope that this spurs members of my class and generation to write something down for their children and grandchildren to have as a part of the personal arsenals that they will need to continue the fight against the pervasive ignorance that works against our efforts to propel this nation and world forward.

May 26th is an important day in my life. It’s a time for reflection on the natal date of my Aunt Sadie, my brother/friend J. Nash and to celebrate being wedded to my wife and fellow warrior.

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