© Copyright 2022 by James Lamont
Photo courtesy of CORE.
Yogi Berra said it best: “It’s deja vu all over again!” Such was my reaction when I began comparing the southern United States I knew as a young reporter for a news wire service sixty years ago, and that same region today. Or perhaps more eloquently (if less amusingly): the more things change, the more they remain the same.
It all began, as often happens where a young, single male is involved, with my pursuit of a young, single female. Carol is only a month older than I, but she had finished college a year and a half before I did, and already had a teaching job in Atlanta by the time I got my BA degree in early 1962. So of course I began conniving ways to get set up in Atlanta.
Journalism was my profession of choice. I had begun my newspaper career as a copy boy on the Washington Post, where I learned fundamentals of the profession and got to cover some minor-league local stories, the while completing college as a part-time student. I then went to the now-defunct Washington Evening Star, where I became a reporter trainee (and Carl Bernstein of to-be Watergate fame was a nervous seventeen-year-old copy boy), covered more and more important stories, and garnered a small handful of kudos; which, once I had my degree, I used to call United Press International in New York and ask for a job in the Deep South.
I had an inkling of what I would be covering in the former Confederacy, but that was the point. To get ahead in journalism, you go where the action is; and down south in the early ‘60s, before Vietnam came along, the civil rights struggle was already underway and making headlines worldwide. So I dreamt of reporting on the action, perhaps even corralling a Pulitzer Prize. All I needed was to be assigned to UPI’s Atlanta bureau, ideal for simultaneous pursuit of career success and Carol.
But instead, I got assigned some 160 miles southeast of Atlanta, to the service’s Montgomery, Alabama, bureau–which, in retrospect, was even better than Atlanta from a career standpoint, and for a trio of reasons.
First, the state capital and second largest city in the state after Birmingham had already been the scene of a major dust-up in the then-nascent civil rights struggle: the Montgomery bus station riot in May 1961. That was when a busload of so-called “Freedom Riders” was met by baseball bat-wielding whites, men and women alike, who instigated a hate-fueled riot for several anguishing minutes until state and local police intervened.
Second, Montgomery’s state capital status could make it a magnet for further inevitable collisions between civil rights advocates and their opponents, this in addition to the opportunity to cover legislative action on the issues. But of course, the city already was a hallmark symbol of the civil rights movement; because it was here, in 1955, that Rosa Parks refused to move to the back seat of a then-segregated city bus.
Third, the bureau was small enough, just four of us in a small suite of rooms on the second floor of the sole local newspaper, the Montgomery Journal-Advertiser (now just the Advertiser) that my chances to be the key reporter on what could become major stories were elevated. Such would not have been the case in Atlanta, where more seasoned reporters would have had first shot (so to speak) at major stories.
I arrived in Montgomery sometime in March, having driven from Washington in my fairly-decent 1955 Dodge four-door sedan, packed with all my possessions, and took a room in a local home in an upscale neighborhood. Straight away, I became familiar with two aspects of the local culture.
First, all Alabamians pronounce their state capital not as it is spelled, Mont-GUM-er-ee, but rather reduce it to three syllables with heavy, drawn-out accent upon the middle, followed by an abrupt consonant ending: Mont-GUMMM-reh. On the very rare occasions I may say the name, I still enunciate it that way.
The second thing I learned was that, as a neophyte reporter for a major, New York-based news service from “Damn-Yankee Territory” (as the North was known then–and still is), I was greeted and treated politely enough, but with reserved suspicion by any and all middle- and upper-class whites. And this from the very onset of my brief time there. My boss, himself a southerner from North Carolina, briefed me on the local protocols, including addressing any and every Caucasian adult I would speak to, regardless of age or social position, as “ma’am” or “sir;” at least on initial contact, and thereafter until and unless the other party initiated first-name use familiarity.
Much of the rest of the scene confused me, perhaps the “Whites Only” and “For Colored Only” signs in particular. Curiously, I don’t remember these ubiquitously blatant segregation statements from the two years I spent in Florida straight out of high school. Now, for some reason, they stood out smartly, smacking me in the face with their blunt, stern admonishment that this is the way things are; and if we have anything to say about it, will remain so for some time to come.
I wondered then, and still do, what the statement “Colored Only...” meant. Colored only for whom? Negroes, of course. But also Native Americans? And Hispanics? And Asians? And Mid-Easterners? Where was the line drawn? I never knew; perhaps no one else ever knew. All I know is...they were there. And if you wanted a drink of water at, say, a bus station or outside a rest room, you sought out the fountain that was meant for your race, or your best guess thereof.
And of course, it wasn’t just drinking fountains that were labeled. It was also entire rest rooms; and seating areas in restaurants, libraries, bus station waiting rooms–every public place I can remember. Even entire public businesses! For example, I remember a soul food restaurant with a big “Colored Only” sign in its window that frustrated my boss, for one, because he relished the cuisine from his college days back in Winston-Salem (not as stringently segregated, in this instance at least, as farther south).
But of course, it wasn’t just Negro establishments that were race-designated. Certain other public places were marked “Whites Only,” and this often in large, prominent billboards. Restaurants were the primary locales where such signs appeared; and indeed, it was in restaurants (not the chain eateries so common today, but usually rather small, mom-and-pop cafés) that the civil rights movement began its assault on the establishment status quo two years earlier, at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The only exceptions to the segregation customs that I can remember were businesses where Blacks and whites inevitably had to have direct contact with one another; for example, in a department store, where a white patron might have to be served by a Black clerk. And even in those cases, one party or the other (usually the Caucasian) could demand that he or she be served by someone of their race.
It was all quite peculiar. And in fact, the nature of it all–and the root cause of regional resistance to change–is clearly illustrated in an academic book published in 1956 entitled, The Peculiar Institution. The title is from a musing penned by Thomas Jefferson, himself the conflicted owner of some 200 slaves, on the dichotomy between his iconic sentence in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal....”) and the unavoidably hard fact of slavery, which he then went on to opine was burdensome on master and slave alike just because of its contradictions.
The essential point of the book is that present-day attitudes toward race relations in the South began with slavery, were established as a tradition in pre-Civil War days, and in many respects continue to the present day. And the crux of this tradition is based on the assumption –and this is the “peculiar” part–that Negroes, whether as pre-war slaves or post-war freemen, are bona fide members of domineering Caucasian families, and are to be treated much like family members, albeit in subservient roles.
There is much evidence, written and otherwise, to back up this presumption. First is that slavery was the literal backbone of the South’s pre-Civil War economy. Slaves cultivated, cared for and picked the cotton and tobacco that were the South’s primary exports, the bases of its agrarian success. And slaves also served the households, including caring for the master’s children. So it behooved southern Whites to see to it that slaves were cared for to some degree or other.
Thus for all the evidence of cruelty to slaves, and such is a-plenty, southern states also had laws on the books protecting the rights of slaves, including fair treatment. And in fact there is evidence that the close-knit, mutually respectful, familial relation between master (or mistress) and slave presented in such as Gone with the Wind was quite the widespread custom in the Old South.
The point is that, in 1861, tradition-bound southerners resented northerners telling them their “families” were inhumane, and to break them up–and that pattern repeated itself precisely one hundred years later, with the North again telling the South: break it up, abolish segregation, give Negroes voting rights, et cetera. In both cases, resistance on the part of the South led to a civil war: one literal, the second less so; but still typified by stubborn, often violent resistance that still goes on in the form of restricting voting rights, gerrymandering, and other common, if here-and-there subtle, barriers to economic and educational opportunities, and social advancements.
And that, in summation, is why I and other northern news hounds of the time were greeted suspiciously, even hostilely: we were worse than mere party crashers--we were home wreckers! We wanted to break up long-held customs, what were regarded as traditional family values and unities; and never mind that certain family “members” resented their lowly status in the households.
I got a short, sharp, bitter taste of this attitude with my very first assignment in Montgomery. I recall reporting to work that first morning and just getting acquainted, when my boss told me there was a report of casualties following a cave-in at a road construction project on the north side of the city, and directed me to go cover it. I got out to the site only to find a clean-up crew and a few policemen standing around. So I collared one of the officers and asked what happened. He scowled at me briefly, then nodded to the accident scene and said matter-of-factly, “Just a couple nigrahs got hurt, one of ‘em killed.” Then without even a shrug, he shouldered me aside and strode off.
Welcome to Alabama, son! Or more commonly if less cordially: Where you from, boy?
So it came to pass that while my job was to cover stories of a state-wide if also possibly national interest, just getting cooperation in pursuing a story up front required that I try to fit myself into the local manner of behaving. And this in turn meant holding my personal opinions and feelings and prejudices in check, which I managed to do for awhile.
My boss, the bureau chief, of course covered the major stories, which other than civil rights disturbances were proceedings of the state legislature. That and speculation concerning that autumn’s gubernatorial election. Not the November election itself, it being a foregone conclusion that the contest would handily go to the Democratic candidate who prevailed in the primary election, to be held in September.
(Note: This was the pre-civil rights legislation era South, then known as the “Solid South” for being wholly Democratic, a tradition dating back to the immediate post-Civil War era when northern Republicans took revenge upon the region for having seceded, thus causing the Civil War. The civil rights upheaval in the mid-1960s changed all that. As accurately forecast by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 upon signing the landmark Civil Rights Act, Democrats have not had a majority in the South since.)
So while it is that I remember covering civil rights-related stories, I also clearly recall social fabric-related incidents that, together with the reporting assignments, create a portrait of the turbulent South of the time. Viewed singly, the reporting assignments and the personal encounters seem not to relate to one another. Yet when woven together, they create what I consider a revealing tapestry of the region; a Dorian Gray-like portrayal that, in many ways, hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s like the theme throughout the Oscar Wilde novel: serenely pleasant on the outside, yet concealing an ugliness.
Interestingly, certain of my recollections revolve around a young man about my age I will call “Leroy” (I’ve long forgotten his name, so will just use a nominal cliché for a southern male) who worked in the Journal-Advertiser press room and for some reason took a liking to me and helped me get accustomed to the surroundings. We weren’t friends so much as acquaintances who respected each other. Which was a good thing, because Leroy quite literally may have saved my life on one occasion.
What happened was I was driving out in the countryside late one night (I forget why, probably returning from covering some story), when a pickup truck pulled up closely behind me. That action made me nervous, so I slowed to allow the vehicle to pass, but it instead kept tight. Then, startling me, it swung around my left side and turned sharply into me, forcing me to cut onto the shoulder, where I had to brake to a halt.
Instantly, young men brandishing clubs jumped out and started toward me. “Get out!” one ordered, yanking open my door. Trembling so fearful I nearly lost control of myself, I stumbled out and stood up straight, my hands upraised slightly. But I no sooner had taken this pose when I heard a familiar voice cry out from the darkness, “Hey! That’s Jim! He works upstairs (newsroom). He’s a good ol’ boy! You leave him be!”
It was, of course, Leroy–and those really were the words he called out; I’ve never forgotten them. I looked toward Leroy’s voice, smiled a bit and waved feebly. He grinned broadly back while waving an arm exuberantly, then gestured to the others to get back into their vehicle. And so they did. And as they drove off, Leroy called back,“You take care now, Jim. See ya!”
I couldn’t move for some moments, just stood there shaking and fumbling for a cigarette to help me calm down before gathering myself together to continue. I’m certain I got picked on because of the District of Columbia license plates on my car, a sure giveaway that I was a Yankee up to no good. The incident haunts me to this day, in that if I’m driving at night, and some vehicle, especially a larger one than mine, pulls up closely behind me and just lurks there, I get extremely nervous and do all I can to get the vehicle to pass me and continue on its way.
Leroy was helpful to me in other ways. Not about reporting; that was my bailiwick, and in fact may be the reason he took a liking to me, as I was a news reporter who just happened to have taken an interest in a press room worker.
It was Leroy who introduced me to the Ku Klux Klan. It was a Friday, and he just poked his head in our office door and, smiling slyly, gestured me to follow him. He led me down to the print setup room, where he indicated a stern-looking, middle-age man attired in a white Klan robe, grimacing as he painstakingly assembled type pieces into a chase, in preparation for the press run. Leroy grinned gleefully as he pointed out that the Klansman had to constantly be pushing back the long sleeves of his robe, to avoid their getting smudged by any leftover printing ink. Leroy then went on the explain that the man was the Grand Secretary of the Alabama KKK, and so wore his sheet to work on Fridays, the day of the week that Klansmen (and women!) proudly displayed their affiliations.
I had noticed this Friday tradition before Leroy explained it to me; I had seen Klan-persons walking about here-and-there on Fridays, sometimes alone but also as couples, but wasn’t sure what the white garments meant or represented before Leroy pointed out this and other aspects of Klan customs. (Was Leroy himself a Klansman? you might ask. I never knew.) Interestingly, this public display of Klan affiliation by men and women alike wasn’t flaunted in any pushy, in-your-face way as might be done at some demonstration today. Rather, it was just persons ambling here-and-there, nodding politely at someone they might pass, stopping now-and-then to chat, who happened to be attired in sharply distinguishing white robes, albeit usually, as I recall, without the telltale white hoods.
Shortly after this revelation, my boss invited me and the other young reporter in the office to join him and reporters from the Associated Press office down the hall on a Friday nighttime visit to a Klan rally, just across the state line in Mississippi. We drove there shortly after dark, to be met at the state line and escorted by two cruisers of Mississippi State Police officers. One of the officers rode with us in our car and briefed us on the expected protocol: no personal interviews of leaders or members, no requests to remove hoods or otherwise do anything; just watch, then try and report objectively. (I don’t remember whether we could take pictures, but neither do I recall having a photographer with us.)
The traditional burning cross was already aflame when we arrived at the rally site, which was in a large clearing in some fairly dense wooded area. The rally itself was not so much scary (I recall standing as close as I could before the tall, burly police officers) as it was very intimidating in what was said.
The rally began with rhythmic chanting that went on for a minute or so before the head Klansman raised his arms, then drew attention to the night’s speaker, another Klansman. His address wasn’t that long, just ten or fifteen minutes. (Our police escort had told us that this was just a regular Friday rally, not some special occasion.) But the speech was threatening, as the speaker admonished the attendees to be on guard for northern “interlopers” (his term), and to let them know in no uncertain terms that “...they and their kind aren’t welcome here, and to go back home.”
I don’t recall whether the featured speaker, or anyone else, made any specific threatening remarks, such as calling for bodily harm or use of weapons. Perhaps the police presence muted such commentary. But the throng (perhaps some hundred-strong, I cannot recall exactly, only that the field was crowded) did respond enthusiastically, with shouted threats and raised arms. Other than that, no one approached us, or otherwise seemed interested or concerned with our presence.
I also learned something about the symbolism. The cross of course signals that this is purely a Christian movement. Its burning is meant to light the way to the pureness of the white race (part of a pre-address ritual; I cannot recall the exact words), of course symbolized by the white robes and hoods. And speaking of the hoods: They were on when we arrived, but once the ceremony was over, most hoods came off, and attendees began greeting one another, smiling and shaking hands and chatting, just like the breakup of your typical service club get-together. Some even nodded politely in our direction as they departed. I remember smiling wanly and nodding in return; I definitely didn’t want to appear to be disapproving.
Much else that I covered is blurred in the past, one exception being, if not the first lunch counter sit-in I covered, certainly the rowdiest and most threatening. The demonstration occurred in Troy, Alabama, some forty miles southeast of Montgomery. The centerpiece of the town is Troy State University, now known as Troy State College. Town businesses are integrated today, but back then they were decorated with the ubiquitous “Whites Only...Colored Only” signs, of course including on restaurants..
I drove there with a photographer. Several other news bureaus were there as well, some of whom I recognized, plus a couple of motion picture news crews, the first I had seen since leaving Washington.
The demonstrators, a half-dozen students of the college we were told, had intruded on the late morning inactivity of a modest diner on the northwest side of the town that fronted on the main road, US Highway 231. They had strode in as a group, then sat on six vacant stools at the lunch counter. The few white customers, just three or four in there at the time and seated at tables, hastily paid their checks and left.
All this of course occurred before word of the demonstration went out and we hurried down. By the time we arrived, surely an hour or more later, a large, boisterous and threatening crowd had gathered outside the restaurant and was spilling onto the highway, kept back (sort of) by state and local police. Only news reporters, religious clergy and town officials were allowed inside the restaurant, and we all were pressed together, forming a sort-of semi-circle around the lunch counter. Police somehow restrained the vicious crowd, which the entire time, men and women alike, screamed all manner of threats and profanities from outside the front entrance.
I managed to squeeze inside with my photographer, and luckily got a place close by one end of the counter, almost within touching distance of the young student seated at the end stool. I can still see him clearly: staring straight ahead, shaking visibly, his hands cupped tightly but nervously around an empty coffee cup. I asked him some innocuous questions (Where are you from? May I have your name? Are you a college student? Is this your first demonstration? That kind of thing.), and got just blunt, usually single-word answers. I in particular remember him answering affirmatively not with a cliché, dialectical “Yassuh” or “No suh,” but rather a distinct, firm if also shaky “Yes, sir!” or “No, sir!”
I also particularly recall feeling sorry for the counter girl, a young blonde who was frantically looking around and begging aloud about what to do. She would implore everyone in sight: the demonstrators, her bosses, the owner and his wife, who were back in the kitchen but looking into the lunch room, the clergymen... Everyone, it seems, but us news people. She made it near-hysterically clear several times that all she wanted to do was serve the students the coffee they had ordered.
This all went on well past the noon hour; I distinctly recall not getting back to Montgomery until dusk. But I also clearly recall that the co-owners finally relented to the pleas of the clergymen present, and nodded to the counter girl to serve the students coffee. But in doing so, in order to avoid retribution by the mob outside, the owners made it a point to step out into the lunchroom to announce that they were giving in to the demonstrators to honor the clergy pleas and the churches, to keep peace. I also remember that the six demonstrators paid for the coffee promptly and left fairly generous tips. The police then duly arrested the six and escorted them out to an awaiting paddy wagon, the crowd continuing to hurl vicious threats.
Much else from my time there is just a blur. An exception is the sole date I had with a girl. This (mis)match-up was arranged by the family in whose house I rented my room, with the daughter of friends of theirs. She was a quite attractive girl who dressed up somewhat elegantly in a flowery dress for our modest dinner date. I remember she was cordial enough, but distant and not very interested in me or my background. But I definitely remember her reply when I, in all naiveté, asked her what her attitude toward impending integration of college would mean to her: “I wouldn’t want one of those black things sitting next to me!” Really. That and the scowling, keep away manner in which she delivered the line. I’m not even sure the evening ended with a smile and a handshake.
I definitely remember when and why I had to leave Alabama in a hurry. It was mid-August, and by that time I had grown impatiently weary of segregation and the locals’ attitude to it; and, it seemed to me, everything else about personal freedoms. It was a Sunday evening; I was in our office alone, as was the custom, just being handy in case some news story broke.
The phone rang. On the other end was George Wallace. Yes, that George Wallace. The George Wallace who, as governor, famously “stood in the schoolhouse door,” than ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968, garnering enough electoral votes as to cause Richard Nixon to win the White House. Wallace then was in his first run for governor, gearing up for the primary, and had a story he wanted released. Specifically, Wallace told me that it was his intent, after being installed as governor, to create a state-sponsored military force that would be separate from the US Army’s National Guard, and that this force would be responsible for keeping order separately from federal forces. Wallace’s intent, I imagine, was to have his “military” usurp federal intentions when it came to desegregation issues.
Wallace then told me that this quasi-military force would have its own special uniforms. On hearing that, I asked him, “Would you have them wear black or brown shirts?” And without another word, he hung up the phone on me.
So I wrote up the story and filed it, including this line: “Mr. Wallace didn’t say whether the uniforms would feature black or brown shirts.” It went out on the wires, and the next morning, a number of newspapers published the story, including the line quoted above.
When my boss came into work, he was nearly apoplectic. He confronted me: “Do you realize what you’ve done!? You better be careful.” I pretty much shrugged it off, and went about business as usual.
Late that afternoon, I went to my car, parked just outside the building, and as I started to back it out of its parking place, I heard the loud “Wham!” of a shotgun, followed near-instantly by the rasping sound of buckshot raking the right side of my car, just below the windows. I hurriedly drove back to my rooming house and inspected the damage: the right-hand front door was pocked with dozens of shotgun pellet holes.
That evening, I called my boss at his house to report what had happened. He replied simply: “That was just a warning. I’d leave if I were you. Go ahead; I’ll cover for you.” So I gathered up my few belongings, packed them in my car, tried to get some sleep, and very early the next morning headed north to Asheville, North Carolina, where my parents had retired.
And once there, I called an uncle who was a newspaper editor in Lansing, Michigan, and asked about a job in the Booth Newspaper chain. And it came to pass that by early September I was a reporter on the Grand Rapids Press, and stayed there for four years until I got a direct commission into the US Navy (I had earlier joined the army reserve) as a public affairs officer, then moved back to Washington, activated my commission, and was assigned to the navy’s Office of Information’s Film Production Branch where I learned to make movies, which then became my career.
In late 1963, I traded my blue Dodge sedan, shotgun pellet scars and all, in on a new Plymouth Fury. My first wife, whom I met in Grand Rapids, remembers those pock marks.
And now, very much has come full circle. Once again the KKK is visible, with their members and other white nationalists brazenly parading around. Once again, there is a struggle in the Deep South, at least for basic, unalienable rights, most particularly voting rights.
I even have a close connection back to Montgomery: Laurie, the wife of a nephew who is the younger son of my wife’s brother. They live in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, and something of a blue blotch in the middle of an otherwise deeply red state. Laurie is a very liberal lawyer who gets involved in all manner of progressive causes, most of which make her unwelcome in many corners of the state. Just for example: Laurie once had a bumper sticker for her modest sedan that read: “If you don’t pray in my school, I won’t think in your church.” She decided to remove the sticker after being forced off the road for a third time.
Laurie even caused me to wonder about the facts surrounding an event from my journalism time in Alabama I clearly remember, but apparently do so in the wrong context. What happened was I was escorting a cadre of reporters from out-of-state to a sit-in. When we arrived, a threatening crowd that had gathered turned their attention to our small bus. As the host, I took it upon myself to be the first one off–and I no sooner had alighted from the bus, that someone in the gang swung at me with a bat or axe handle and struck me on the side of my head. I instantly fell to the ground, rolled under the bus and stayed there, as the mob started to force its way onto the bus, but instead was broken up a cadre of policemen. As soon as things quieted down, mere seconds later, I crawled out from under the bus. I had a bleeding scab atop my head, but nothing serious.
For years, decades even, I remembered the event as the famous Montgomery bus station riot. But Laurie and the internet set me straight on that: the infamous bus station event occurred a year before I arrived in Montgomery. I’ve no idea what was the event where I got clubbed, but it must have been a minor aside to all else that was occurring in the South then, because I cannot find evidence of it on-line. I can only assume that the police broke things up very quickly, and nothing of import was ever reported.
The lunch counter sit-in I covered seems to have met the same demise: Troy has no record of the incident, yet I clearly recall covering it. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps it was a lunch counter elsewhere on the highway that runs from Montgomery to the Florida panhandle. Still, one would think there would be a record of the event somewhere.
Finally, there’s even a circle back to the reason I went south in the first place: Carol. She of course married someone else and I lost track of her. Then, a decade ago, nearly a half-century to the day after I last spoke with her, she popped up on my Facebook page, having been seeking me since her husband had died some months earlier. She now lives in a senior assisted living center near DeLand, Florida, where we first met.
So Yogi Berra was also right when he said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And maybe not even then.
I’ve been told I’ve led a Forrest Gump life, meaning I’m just standing around doing nothing in particular, but then all kinds of adventures start raining down, and I never once volunteered for a one of them.