6 Degrees of Savannah Civil Rights – Part Two

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“We may have all come on different ships,

but we’re in the same boat now.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Somewhere between waiting tables, giving tours and running a deli, I still found time for politics. My friends and enemies will tell you this comes as no surprise. Just being in Savannah with such long and revolutionary past, brings it out in those paying attention. Savannah makes you want to stick up for the place and its contents. Thus, per one cause I took up at 22 years of age, I found myself on a late night phone call basis with one of the forerunners of the Savannah Civil Right’s movement, W.W. Law or “Mr. Civil Right’s as he was affectionately known. When I say that this man was and is revered in Savannah? I mean he is RAH-VEERED. Not without critics of course and some of them rightfully, but there’s no way we’d have greater black heritage learning, monuments, museums, and tours without W.W. Law’s role in culture. It was his life’s great work. He fought the fight to get it to the point where all of these things could be more appreciated.  Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Right’s Museum, that Law helped to create, was named for his own pastor mentor from The First African Baptist Church. Mr Law was older than Dr. King by 6 years and it reminds me that Dr. King was sort of “the baby” of the movement and although becomes the movement’s great darling, he was really walking around in the footsteps of many forebearers that had paved the way. W.W. Law one of those elders or perhaps a slightly older cousin, but as someone put it to me, King understood that Savannah had its own thing and was doing it well.  All the same, W.W. Law eventually became President of the NAACP Savannah Chapter from 1950 to 1976. Of which, during, he conducted sit-ins, wade-ins at Tybee Beach and in 1960, would famously lead “The Great Savannah Boycott” which prompted Savannah to become the first city in The South to declare all of its citizens equal — 3 whole years before the actual Federal Civil Right’s Act. No small feat and clearly, Dr. King was aware of his work and it appears there was correspondence from Law to King, but am uncertain if much more existed there than mutual respect. Personally, I came to know Mr. Law in his “retirement” years after his 4 decades as a mail carrier. Which is funny because that’s how I first knew him, as a mild-mannered, mail carrier. I only new 2 carriers by name then. Mr Law and Charlie Chaplin. Yep, his real name. I remember Mr. Law was reserved and a man who knew the value of relationships and chose his words wisely. I’m not sure what Mr. Law made of me as a young rabble-rouser exactly, but regarding my concerns over a local racist in a position of influence, he was an eager listener and pointed me in some directions that in some respect led to the fall of said individual. Or maybe they fell on their own sword. Even so, I gave them a little nudge with Law’s guidance and I’ll share that story gem at a future date. Through the years, colleagues recalled that Law was so humbled by his role in life, that he wanted nothing named for himself after he was gone. To the extreme that he insisted that no one was to know where he would be buried in Laurel Grove South Cemetery. I can only speculate on this point but believe that W.W. Law felt that he’d be permitted to stand on the backs of giants. He seemed to realize that much like the concept of the mailman, he saw himself as a simple steward of history’s message, not so much the author. Like a good mailman, W.W. Law just wanted to make sure it arrived safely and in good shape. I will humbly offer that he more than succeeded. I hope he will not be displeased in me saying that he now has one of the loveliest of headstones in the cemetery. Long live “The Mailman!”

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I suppose I bring all of that up, not to just namedrop, but to say that in moving to Savannah, I had no concept that I would be introduced to so many interesting people or see so many interesting things or moreover, be as touched by the spirit of Civil Right’s history. Granted walking into Savannah, knowing nothing, the excitement was certainly in the air, but really I just come here to go to art school. I had no specific knowledge of its connection to Dr. King or others. In my Midwestern schooling, I’d read about things more epic to Atlanta or Selma or Birmingham. The only other thing outside of my general education that I had knowledge of, was that my mother’s high school in Sturgis, KY was featured in LIFE Magazine in 1956 during the hallmark case, Brown vs Board of Education. The Sturgis Consolidated School was being desegregated and there were National Guard tanks and other military vehicles around as 9 or 10 black students were lead to school. Some coal miners and farmers had raised a stink but more curious seeker showed up than mob so don’t think much came of it past the first days. My mother raised Christian, had no issues with it personally and it was about as much excitement as her little hometown ever had or has had, since. 

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I grew up in Rantoul, Illinois, a small farming town with Chanute Air Force Base as a major economic anchor. Rantoul was a place where frankly black people were neighbors, friends, fellow churchgoers, your parent’s teaching peers and our teacher’s too. They came over for bridge night. We all went to church together, were on the same sport’s teams, swam in the public pool together and all of the kids played in the neighborhood together. You know, what America should be. Among us, there were military brats of every shade and I noticed they were either tainted by racial things from traveling so much or because of that experience, were the most mature and even less bothered by it. Now and again, some kids in my town tried to force “race fights” after school and I went to watch if just for the sheer disbelief. It didn’t feel “real” or based on anything. In fact, such fights always petered out because there were no true animosities beyond the contrived. That “stuff” was for adults in other places and we were too busy being kids. Even if some of the parents might have been racist, we were the smarter end of the day. Those who acted racist just struck us as simply “mean” and were only lashing out with bad words but it wasn’t stamped on their souls. Our parents didn’t raise us naively. We knew about “haters.” There was nothing deep seeded in my hometown. I think a lot of us kids genuinely loved each other. None of us felt oppressed by history even if we understood there were those who had been. Kids aren’t stupid. We knew to feel lucky. Sure, we had cliques, but we didn’t feel integrated, desegregated or tiptoe around racial ideas or language or communicating. We were here now as peers and of the present mindset looking to a better future. And every kid I knew well? They loved Dr. King because of I Have A Dream. It echoed in us. We were the little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls” right now. We were his dream inheritors. Benefactors of all of those who had fought for, lived, lost and loved to have that. We and our families were proof of King’s “ought-to-be America” and that it could be. This spiritual knowing gave us unconscious strength and even as kids, we knew we were going forward.

Northview Elementary, 4th Grade Class & Little Me

 PART THREE COMING SOON! 

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6 Degrees of Savannah Civil Rights – Part One

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“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately” 
— Ben Franklin

I’ve just returned from a rather cold 5-mile walk in the cemetery under a powerful full moon, or what’s leftover from last evening’s Super Blood Wolf Moon. My soundtrack? Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic speeches here on the nation’s annual holiday just several days after King’s birthday. There was something about the combination of the moonlight illuminating so brightly that objects became stark black and white, King’s God-like voice echoing off of granite and marble headstones like they were his gathered, listening flock. Sadly, King, now more among them, even if the legacy of his words and hypnotic voice live on forever and resonate as vibrantly if not more so.

It has become almost a ritual for me now that I give myself a Dr. King Day every January 21. Generally, I will turn on Savannah State University’s 90.3FM and listen to his speeches and the various interviews and commentaries they play. For an entire day, his voice fills both the foreground and the background of my household. It’s generally a day where I don’t leave the house much, I become that immersive in the spirit of his memory and the meaning of his life. I’ve found its usually a sunny, but colder day in Savannah on King’s Remembrance Day and am embarrassed to admit that I usually skip the morning parade. It’s just that the day wants me to be more meditative and singular, surrounded by my animals and books and the smell of coffee. More Thoreau-in-the-woods kind of experience. Martin would approve but would probably tell me to add a carton of Kent cigarettes. After all he was an intellectual before Minister. 

Young Martin Luther King, Jr, arms open in the way a book is like a friend. After so much reading, Martin was ready to be read like one and he spoke volumes.

Tonight I’m moved to write about Dr. King and The 6 Degrees of Civil Rights’ Separation in my own life. No, I was not there but I moved to a town that was center stage and have, met and in some cases befriended key players who knew other majors. I never got to meet my hero Dr. King, who, at a very young age, became part of my spirit and voice as communicator and orator and storyteller. So to meet people who did, to make studies of their faces and words as they’ve related this story or that one? And to now call these people “my new heroes,” or to have made the friendship of some? Well, I cannot begin to express how deeply its touched my life and that these memories I will carry with me until the end of my own days. I am gobsmacked when I think about it actually. 

This will be a long night for me. But I’m channeling The King Energy so have to honor the muse and of course, you, my reader. There will be a Part Two & Three and will be worth holding out for so stay with me in this path. It will lead somewhere interesting and unexpected. 

I’ve stood next to and touched a real live lynching tree. Like a real one. Not the ones they talk about on cheesy ghost tours, but a true-to-life, hanging tree. I used to sit on the bench beneath its massive branches late at night taking breaks from art projects, or in the afternoons when I watched my dog Mina play nearby.  I loved its large presence and the way it stood behind me. It kept me company. I used to watch the sun go down behind it each night from my 5th Floor apartment 2 blocks away. All Live oaks seem to hold secrets but for a number of years, I had no idea that this one had such a dark past. A rather morbid irony was that it reposed smack dab in the middle of Colonial Park Cemetery. Like some great watchtower, it was the tallest Live oak in downtown Savannah and by some estimates around 120 ft in height. It was often compared to the height of the steeple of The Independent Presbyterian Church as it was visible from pretty much anywhere in the historic district. You can actually glimpse it in my documentary film, “America’s Most Haunted City” or peek it on YouTube in a CMT TV short I did with Coast To Coast Radio’s George Noory. The cemetery had been used for hangings during colonial times and the last mob-style lynching was in 1911. A black man falsely accused of raping a white woman was dragged from the neighboring Old City Jail, then hung from the mighty oak and his body was torched on the tree. The original photo, which had never been previously exhibited or publicly seen, was owned by a mentor who loaned it to the controversial exhibit “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” in 2002 at The King Center. My friend had spoken of it many times, so it was finally something to see it first hand. The image of the charred body forever burned in my mind. Like it was never a man from the start. I never blamed the tree obviously, but when the city cut the perfectly healthy tree down over a decade ago? I felt certain someone either still held a grudge or felt they were putting the tree out of its own historical misery. I wept over that one.
On a “lighter note,” there’s a neighbor who I’ve long respected, the family much admired, he owns a set of swivel stools from a drugstore counter where protestors sat in Savannah during a sit-in during the turbulent ’60s. They repose discreetly and unmarked in his storefront window. When I first asked him why they were there, this rather humble man and not famous for smiling, almost beamed back one when he exclaimed, “Dr. King sat in them and when they closed the department store, I told the man,Save those chairs for me!” You could tell they’ve been a proud possession ever since. 

Although I once lived closer, I’m still just mere blocks from The 2nd African Baptist Church where Dr. King flirted with an early rendition of his famous, I Have A Dream speech. Arguably the greatest speech given in the 20th century and in my opinion is the only rival to “The Gettysburg Address.” Every goose bump from here to eternity now has a built-in reaction, programmed by King’s magnificent oration. Can you imagine having been part of the test audience on that one? And in the same spot, where many years prior, General Sherman had presented his 40 Acres & A Mule edict? Talk about nation changing speeches and what a follow-up for the young Rev King!

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Through the years in Savannah, one of my favorite friendships belongs with notable writer and photographer, Murray Silver, Jr. His father, Murray Silver Sr, wrote the book, Daddy King & Me, about Martin’s father, or the other Martin, “Daddy King,” and the details of their long friendship. Murray Silver not only represented Martin Luther, Jr as an attorney, but he was also on the scene just minutes after Daddy King’s wife, Alberta was murdered in Atlanta in 1974 during the failed attempt on Coretta’s life. It’s odd, yet not surprising, that mainstream media “skips” mentioning this every year when they honor Dr. King. Or that Martin’s brother, Alfred, “A.D.” King drowned mysteriously after his brother Martin’s assassination. Clearly, someone wanted all of these beautiful people dead. To date, Murray Silver, Jr counts Coretta Scott-King offering him a role in helping to develop The King Center in Atlanta one of his life’s great honors. Both Silver men have countless stories and personal photos of the two families in casual gatherings and its that behind-the-scenes stuff of such people that is so priceless to other storytellers like myself.

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PART TWO COMING NEXT WEEK!