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Civil rights movement: How far have we come?
Gainesville has made strides in equal rights, residents say
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Mordecai Wilson looks at a wall of memories in his Lula home. Wilson took off work to attend the March on Washington, 50 years ago Wednesday. - photo by NAT GURLEY

It seemed like a black-and-white world on the surface, until the pot was stirred.

Fragments of the past float to the top after lying beneath still waters. A school gradebook, a yellowed newspaper article, a bus ticket break the surface and the memories start to bubble up.

Fifty years ago, one man said he had a dream, in a speech that wasn’t fully appreciated by many at the time. But the dream turned into a milestone moment in a movement that continues to strive today for freedom, justice and equality.

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Many local residents said equal rights in this country, including in Gainesville, have come a long way since that hot August day a half-century ago, but many said there’s still a long way to go.

It’s still a touchy subject in Gainesville, especially for some white residents who lived through the era.

Many people point to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president as a sign of progress. But recent examples of racial tension include the slaying of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and last year’s controversy over who should be valedictorian at Gainesville High School, when a black student and white student were neck and neck in their qualifications for the honor.

The March on Washington

The Aug. 28, 1963, march was hardly news in Gainesville at the time, but some black Gainesville residents said they followed it on television. More than 200,000 people of all colors and ages and genders took planes, trains and buses to one of the largest political rallies in U.S. history to demand freedom and jobs for all.

The march is credited with influencing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

King said in the speech: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and the ghettos of our northern cities knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the movement, I still have a dream.”

Gainesville resident Ruby Brawner said she followed King over the years, including the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and in an earlier 1963 march in Birmingham when he and other protesters were drenched by fire hoses and attacked by dogs.

“(King) accomplished a lot, but there’s still a lot more that needs to be accomplished,” Brawner said. “It never will be exactly like it should be, but it might get better. Sometimes things get better.”

The Times ran coverage of the protest way off the front page; page 11 on Aug. 29 carried a short wire story about the rally. The top story the day after the march was about five miners trapped in Utah.

The day of the march, The Times ran a short wire story on the front page. The top story the day of the march was about former Alabama Gov. George Wallace using 200 state troopers to bar black students from entering a “white” high school in Macon County.

Black Gainesville residents knew of King, a Baptist minister from Atlanta, and watched his struggle and nonviolent protests on television. Lula resident Mordecai Wilson attended the march. Then a Boston resident, the 38-year-old took the day off work driving a truck to take a bus to the nation’s capital. He had a lot of anxiety, but he says now it was worth it.

“It was right in the middle of the marches and the new revolution and integration and everything,” Wilson said. “I just had to go. Go or die.”

King’s words still resonate with the black community, Bush said. Mize said she didn’t think she would ever see a black president in her lifetime.

Life in Gainesville

Black people weren’t noticed around town, Willie Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who was the first black firefighter in the city in 1977, had to file a discrimination lawsuit to get in.

As a kid, he wanted to eat at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s and go to the movies, but he wasn’t allowed to. Crossing the racial divide at Jesse Jewell Parkway could be dangerous.

“There was too much fear to venture out,” he said. “You cross Jesse Jewell and you’d probably end up going to jail.”

Many black Gainesville residents worked at the Fieldale Farms poultry plant or as domestic help in homes.

Faye Bush, 79, who moved to the historically black Newtown area of Gainesville in 1949, had a job at the chicken plant pulling out the gizzard, part of the bird’s digestive system. The plant had separate drinking fountains and rest rooms, both Bush and Brawner said.

“They gave us those kinds of jobs and the others in there had good jobs,” Bush said. “With the chickens they were bloody ...”

There was a Ku Klux Klan presence in the neighborhood that scared the black residents. People were so scared that they laid down on the floor or under the bed to escape the group’s wrath.

Hotel and retail stores wouldn’t allow African-Americans in their establishments.

Hall schools integrated

Integration came slowly in Hall County. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 mandated black students sit with white students in the same schools, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Gainesville and Hall County schools were both integrated.

It took years of planning and reorganization before and after that year to make it happen smoothly.

Hall had a contract with the city to have all of its black students attend city schools. That contract was dissolved on July 10, 1969, and black students started going to county schools. Hall schools already were overcrowded, so the system started building more schools, said Lee Lovett, deputy superintendent for the county.

Helen Martin was a teacher and educator in Gainesville schools for about 40 years, starting in about 1966. She had her first black child in her fifth-grade class in 1969. He had no transition challenges, she said.

“I thought ‘He’s just like any other little fifth-grade person,’” she said. “I was good to him and he was very good to me in terms of I don’t recall any difficulty.”

She calls her white colleagues that taught to the all black E.E. Butler High School “brave.” The school was closed in 1969.

“It was just so foreign and unknown to us,” Martin said. “Because we had never had a mixed school system.”

Jackie Mize was one of the first black students to attend an integrated school, Gainesville Middle School. She said it was like entering a nightmare while forcing a smile.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I didn’t know the real reason of being black until I went to an integrated school.”

She said her mother, Faye Bush, kept it secret that white people hated them so much.

“So I learned what it was to be hated when I went to that school,” Mize said. “I hated that school, but somebody had to be the first to break the change of segregation.”

Mize said she had to walk and not fight back. She said she was called names and faced racist teachers. Kids would holler “nigger” in the hallways.

“A lot of the time I wanted to give up,” she said. “(My mother) encouraged me to follow Martin Luther King’s role of nonviolence.”

Vandalism destroyed student records at Butler High after it closed, said Gainesville High School Principal Curtis Segars. During his tenure, he got a death threat at his home. His wife answered the phone and told him the caller asked for “Mr. Segars.”

He told his wife not to worry about it. The caller was angry, but still addressed him with respect by calling him “Mister.”

“I was young and dumb,” Segars said. “There were so many things going on that if you allowed things like that to bother you, I don’t think you would have done a very good job.”

But the educator seemed to have an innate way of understanding people. One day he approached a group of black students, and instead of calling for reinforcements, he talked to the students and they went back to class. If he had called for backup, the situation could have gotten out of control, he said.

Racial tension erupts

Gainesville was no Birmingham but there still were race riots, especially after King was assassinated in 1968, Mitchell said.

“They were always happening in the neighborhood you lived in,” he said. “I never did understand that.”

“When he got shot, folks went crazy,” Brawner said.

The Times reported in July 1969 that two days of protests had erupted into violence when a large crowd apparently broke windows and threw rocks and bottles at passing vehicles. Young black students were apparently protesting what was then the proposed closing of Butler High.

A white person stabbing a black student at a football game in September 1972 appeared to have ignited three days of rioting, resulting in fires, businesses firebombed and numerous arrests, according to Times archives. The city government put a mandatory curfew in place.

Gainesville’s City Commission met with black leaders, including current City Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, a former teacher, to agree on steps to reduce the city’s racial tensions. Then-Mayor Joe Stargel agreed to appoint a Community Relations Council, made up of equal numbers of black and white residents, said a Times article about the meeting.

50 years later

The fragments of the past floated slowly to the bottom of the pot as things improved for black residents. During the years after the civil rights era, the pot simmered but didn’t boil and overflow with riots and the kind of racial tension seen at the height of the conflict.

The March on Washington and the civil rights laws that followed helped promote integration, residents said. Gainesville City Council elected the city’s first black mayor, John Morrow Jr., in 1985.

Today, many attitudes have changed for the better, but racial issues still bubble up.

Brawner said that some people, both black and white, just got better at putting up a better front.

“It’s getting better, but everything needs to be uplifted,” she said. “If I live 50 more years, it would never, never, never be the way God wants it to be.”

The Gainesville Hispanic community faces some civil rights discrimination of its own, but some black residents see their struggle as different than the one they fought.

Immigrants from other countries come here to seek freedom instead of being brought here in chains, Mize said.

But she said it’s more about coming together as a nation or destroying ourself in the process.

“It’s not just a color in racism, sometimes they just don’t like the way you look,” she said.

Brawner clings to her faith and “doing the right thing” as a way of navigating this uncertain world.

“It do not cost you one dime to be nice,” Brawner said. “Let me see who I can help tomorrow. Why can’t (people) be nice?”

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