05 November 2011

Power to the People, Part Two

In the fall of 1969, I changed schools. My new school had been a segregated, all-black institution, Booker T. Washington Senior High. Once again, as I made new friends, I found a few students who, like myself, were supportive of the anti-war movement. I also managed to join the staff of the school newspaper as an editorial writer; my first column was (you guessed it) a call for an end to the American involvement in Vietnam. That fall, I participated in my first anti-war demonstration which was part of the national (actually international) Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

My life changed one weekend when my friend Doug suggested that we go to The Establishment, a local coffeehouse located near the University of West Florida. I soon began going there every Friday and Saturday night; it was pretty much the only place I went on weekends. I got to know a few UWF students there, including David Goff and his wife Karen who lived in the house next door and managed the coffeehouse. They were amazingly tolerant of a young high school student who shared their political views; but, more importantly they, along with a few other students from the university, were looking for ways to become more involved in the movement that was sweeping the country.

Over the next few months more people drifted into our circle, including Dr. Alan Kirshner, a UWF History professor who became a mentor to our group. He recommended that we form an official organization which would serve as a clearinghouse for protest activities in Pensacola. And so the unfortunately-named Survivalist Coordinating Committee was born with the goal of working to link students from the university, the junior college, and local high schools with like-minded members of the community. We were especially interested in connecting with Pensacola's civil rights organizations. It should be noted, by the way, that the term "survivalist" did not have the same meaning then as it would years later. Our idea was that change was going to be required if our society was to continue and grow.

Our attempts to form liaisons with the various community organizations were not overly successful; however I did have experience of meeting several of Pensacola's foremost civil rights organizers, most notably the Reverend H. K. Matthews. It seems strange, given the respect and honor that is accorded Rev. Matthews today; in 1969 he was regarded as a dangerous radical by the white community. But he was probably the most important civil rights leader of his day in Northwest Florida and was (and is) a truly great man. Even today as a man in his mid-eighties he is active; he recently visited the Occupy Pensacola group and let them know that he was willing to occupy the park with them if needed. As I said - a truly great man who has spent his life dedicated to the pursuit of social justice.

That spring, the S.C.C.'s focus turned to environmental issues. April 22 of that year was the first Earth Day and I was able to organize an assembly at my high school to mark the event. I arranged for two UWF professors to speak at the assembly: a biologist and Dr. Kirshner. Alan's remarks at that gathering were to have far-reaching effects. He had already gotten the attention of some powerful individuals in the community by speaking at local anti-war rallies, but his remarks at Washington High School that day would eventually cost him his job.

Alan's speech that day was relatively mild, but it did not go over well with some members of the school's administration. That was ironic, because the line that created the strongest reaction was actually complementary to the school's principal, Neroy Anderson. Alan praised Mr. Anderson, saying that he was a man more interested in what was inside his students' heads rather than what was on top of those heads (referring to his toleration of males wearing long hair). The students' reaction was overwhelmingly positive and it seemed that the assembly had been a great success. Later on, however, word came down from the County Superintendent's office that his speech at the assembly had been geared to incite a riot (ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing of the sort had occurred). They declared Alan persona non grata and banned him from setting foot on county school property. This presented a problem as one of Alan's job responsibilities was to supervise student teachers from the History Department. Pressure grew - once again from powerful interests in the community - to fire him and several other faculty members who were perceived as dangerous radicals. Eventually that is exactly what happened; Alan appealed to the Board of Regents to be reinstated, but that appeal was denied. I testified during his hearing that there had been no adverse reaction, but the Board decided to defer to the School Board and denied the appeal. Alan quickly got another teaching job at a school in California, a position which he held until his retirement in 2011.

I will never know exactly what the real circumstances leading to Alan's termination were; that is, who actually was responsible for his banishment from county school property. I do believe that Mr. Anderson was basically a good man however, so my best guess is that it came from some community leaders and the county administration. Alan was not the only leftist professor to be let go; another had lost her job for making a speech to a Rotary Club which was not well-received. I suppose that if one was going to make a left-leaning political speech in those days, a Rotary Club in Pensacola, Florida was a dangerous venue to choose.

Less than two weeks after that first Earth Day, the war was suddenly at the forefront again. On April 30, Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, sparking outrage and intensifying protests on American campuses. It was at one of those protests that four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. Four days later, eleven students were bayonetted by the New Mexico National Guard during a protest at the University of New Mexico. Fortunately, none of those students were killed, but two students at Jackson State were not so lucky on May 14, when they were shot and killed in a similar fashion as those at Kent State. The United States, under the leadership of the Nixon Administration, had declared war on its own children.

No comments:

Post a Comment