2/1/1999 – Printed in the FLORIDIAN section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Already the early morning sun was blazing hot as we cleared the bridge over the St. Johns River, and the perpetual stench of Palatka’s pulpwood mills flowed through the open windows of our car as my grandfather and I neared the Putnam County Courthouse.

I was excited because I would start the paperwork for getting a restricted driver’s license. I had stayed up all night, dreaming of driving my parents’ 1949 Chevrolet, of showing off in front of the girls at all-Negro Middleton High School in Crescent City, of wearing exotic cologne and holding my wrist dangerously loose over the steering wheel, as I had seen my father and other men do around women. And, of course, I dreamed of owning a fast, sporty coupe.

The year was 1959, and I was a few months away from being old enough to drive legally.

My grandfather and I climbed the courthouse stairs, moving aside at the door to let three white women pass. At the counter, a clerk, an older white woman with eyes that instinctively looked through Negroes without seeing their humanity, gave me a form to fill out. My grandfather sat in the chair beneath the ceiling fan, his hat resting awkwardly on his lap. An armed sheriff’s deputy, a tall, white man with a ruddy face and hairy arms, stood beside me. Leaning on the counter, he chatted with the woman, studied me from head to toe, and glanced over at my grandfather. The room was hot, and I was nervous.

When the woman asked if I had a pen, I said, “No, I don’t.” I had no idea that those three simple words had violated two centuries of strict tradition and had exposed me to the senseless oath that required a white man to protect the honor of a white woman, especially when her honor had been trampled on by a Negro.

As I reached for the pen that she was handing me, the deputy grabbed my left shoulder, spun me around to face him, shoved my back against the wall and pressed his forearm against my chest.

“You say “Yes, ma’am,’ and “No, ma’am,’ to a white lady, you little nigger,” he said in a low, deliberate tone, his breath smelling of tobacco.

Never will I forget the way he said “nigger” and the rage in his eyes. Over the years, I have relived this incident, assessing my reaction to it, then measuring its long-term effect on who I have become.

Doubtless it was a watershed in the life of a proud 14-year-old Negro, a muscular football star, a happy teenager who saw himself quickly growing into manhood.

Now, I look back and marvel that _ given the racial customs of that time, when white men believed that they had a God-given right to do anything they pleased to Negroes _ I was lucky to have escaped physically unharmed.

Weighing about 190 pounds and standing nearly 6 feet, I stiff-armed the deputy in the face, as I routinely did opposing players who tried to tackle me when I ran the football. I caught him off-balance, and he went back, stumbling to hold himself up.

“Keep your hands off me!” I shouted.

I was unafraid, only insulted and angry. He grabbed the edge of the counter and balanced himself. I looked into his eyes, knowing that he wanted to shoot me. I believe now that he started to reach for his handgun. But perhaps I imagined the hesitant downward movement of his hand for the weapon. I did not imagine the heat of bigotry in his eyes, the heavy burden of his being of the “superior race.”

As I stared at him, he looked away, turned to my grandfather and said, “Get this little troublemaking nigger out of here. He thinks he’s Martin Luther King or somebody.”

“Don’t call me a nigger!” I shouted, moving toward him.

By now my poor grandfather, a gentle man infused with the serenity of the deeply devout, was trembling. Jumping to his feet, he pulled me down the hallway and out of the building. Terror was in his eyes as we passed the Confederate Heroes monument. In the car, he did not look at me nor speak to me. We drove the 26 miles back to Crescent City in silence.

When he died four years ago, we still had not discussed that day. I can only guess at his reason for never talking about it. But I know what it did to me. It introduced into my young consciousness a sense of personal vulnerability and mortality. Until then, I had been like other children of all other ethnic backgrounds of which I am aware: I believed that I was invincible and would live forever.

That day, there I stood in that muggy courthouse, facing a man who wanted to annihilate me, who could have annihilated me with the squeeze of a finger.

Why would he have done so?

Because my skin was black. Because I forgot the lay of the land and stepped out of my “place” when I did not say “ma’am” to a white woman. Even at that young age, I understood that my fate was in the hands of a total stranger, a white man, an adult who despised me for no logical reason.

I clearly understood that life in the South was unfair, that being a Negro in northeast Florida was a high-risk game of minimizing assaults.

Even more, I walked away from that courthouse with an altered psyche and a diminished sense of self, conditions that I would spend subsequent years trying to repair.

Indeed, the courthouse encounter was a turning point for me, but it was also the fulcrum in my growth, the point of support from which I now can appreciate the wholeness of my life. In other words, all events that occurred before that day in Palatka prepared me for surviving it.