In late April my wife and I went downtown for the ceremony honoring the courageous black Pensacolians who engaged in a sit-in to protest to segregation of department store lunch counters.
Even though it was a rain-threatened Saturday afternoon, we were both disappointed in the turnout, both black and white. It underscored a comment I read from Sarah Jonas, the young UWF student whose research led to the event. She said, “These things didn’t happen all that long ago and yet I feel that many young people are so disconnected from it.”
Apparently, so are many older people. There was a modest crowd despite abundant publicity leading up to the ceremony, which culminated in the unveiling of an historical marker.
I had decided to attend the ceremony for two main reasons, beyond the simple fact that such events, and such people, should be honored.
My first reason for being there was simply in homage to ordinary people who braved real and sustained threats of violence for simply standing up – or, in this case, sitting down – for their basic human rights. It’s one thing to stand up for what is right when you have substantial community support. It is an entirely something else when standing up for what is right comes from a minority group facing the opposition of not just the majority group, but law enforcement and local government in the hands of the majority that is oppressing them. The young black men and women who engaged in the sit-in faced not just taunts and physical abuse from angry whites, but from law enforcement that acted in concert with them. How chilling must it have been for these young men and women to be led away from the lunch counter, under a shower of abuse from angry segregationists, only to have police pluck items off store shelves and slip them into their pockets to facilitate charging the protesters with shoplifting.
The other reason I wanted to go is that this wasn’t ancient history to be read about in a book. I remember as a child going into downtown stores and seeing separate water fountains. I didn’t understand why it was that I was not to drink from the fountain labeled colored, just that there was something ominous about it. I might not have understood the reasoning, but in Pensacola in the late 1950s and early 1960s it was no mystery that blacks were an underclass. I was not introduced to racism in my home, but it permeated my almost all-white elementary school, where being a rebel was celebrated pridefully and many whites openly used the worst language to describe blacks. You could have come down from the moon and quickly ascertained that in the eyes of the light-skinned residents there was something very wrong with the city’s dark-skinned residents.
There has been undeniable progress in race relations since the 1960s, but it has been troubling to witness recent police shootings of unarmed black men in cities across the nation, not to mention the latent racism revealed through the free voice of the Internet, and even in our politics. But at least for one Saturday, a too small but proud contingent of Pensacolians turned out to show that courage should be, and will be, remembered.