By Eddie Griffin
Thursday, April 03, 2008
Is there room for honesty in America or, indeed, the world? I don’t think so. If there were, they would build a three-mile nuclear clear zone, just in case this Negro blows his top. Honesty in America, from the lips of a black man, is like a nuclear holocaust. (Oh, horrors! Did he just say that?)
Strange, how we all loved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after the fact of his death, some 40 years ago, this April 4th. Even those who hated him in life now show a kind of post-mortem reverence, like “Thank God, he’s dead.” What he stood for, what he fought for, and what he died for, was a threat to the American way of life. No one was ready for black people to be equal. Even now, there are diehards standing at the gate, obstructing the way to a truly gregarious society.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was only in his mid-20s when he catapulted onto the national stage. To the world, he was the embodiment of a new black uprising challenging America’s apartheid system of segregation. He was the media baby for the Civil Rights Movement.
Meanwhile, black youth in Texas watched on, as the movement in the South began to take shape. Martin was just a man, we thought, just like us, only a few years older, and he was leading an integration movement in Mississippi, a hopeless state gone to hell. We suspected that black people in Mississippi were still oppressed because they didn't have the courage to stand up and defend themselves. Nevertheless, we supported Martin and his movement. We, Texas boys, just opposed the non-violent part. (Texas and non-violence don't go together).
The sit-movement came and went in one day in Fort Worth. A sit-in demonstration at the downtown Woolworth, and the next day the store was integrated. When the Transportation Department declared that separate accommodations on buses and bus depots were unlawful, we began to sit where we wished, with little, if any, physical opposition.
Sure, we were berated and chided, and called everything but a child of God. But sticks and stones might break our bones, but words would never hurt us. Our resolve: Just don’t let them put their hands on us like they did the people in Mississippi.
We remembered the story of Emmitt Till from 1955, before Martin came on the scene. The poor 14-year old black boy was dragged out of his uncle’s house and tortured to death. But it came as no surprise to the rest of us black boys except to remind us to stay off the street at night and never be caught alone among white men. This was our natural way of life during the 1950s while we were growing up.
We watched the white society around us. These were times when the only black face working downtown was the janitor at the courthouse. That was a high class job, we thought. Pullman porters were the crème de la crème of the black community. The rest of us darkies stayed out of sight and out of mind.
We had our own black downtown, our own movie houses, our own restaurants, our own cab stand, our own schools, our own land, our own houses, our own community, our own everything. We had no need from white society in the Fort Worth black community during the 1950s. Only the integrationists wanted to mix the races... a nice idea, we thought, if it would worked. Otherwise, we were mostly satisfied with what we had, except in the area of housing and education. In these areas, there was still overt discrimination.
The walls began to come down during the time of President John F. Kennedy who was moved by Martin Luther King’s courage to lead a non-violent confrontational movement against brutal southern authority. The administration began to support the cause of the Negro. In 1961, Kennedy ordered the colleges to be desegregated and housing discrimination to end. As a result, the way was opened for us to move up and into a middle-class.
There was some white opposition, but nothing that we could not overcome. Instead of living together in harmony as the civil rights activists wished, whites began to move out, and blacks moved into their abandoned neighborhoods, into second-class houses, still second-class citizens.
As young black men in Texas felt, we could not make white people love us. But sure as hell, we thought, they were not going to stop us from achieving equality. However, we never expected a subversive fight. We never expected to fight off drugs and police suppression at the same time. We were targets and never knew it. Therefore, we never saw our downfall coming.
As racial barriers in equal employment began to come down, as a new wave of Afro-Americans began to move into the labor market. We found ourselves in positions of employment in an alien white world. Instead of being treated as equals, we were either patronized with sympathetic liberal paternal hands or treated with subtle disdain and contempt. We had to pretend that we didn’t see it, if we wanted to keep our new jobs, because America was not ready for honesty from the lips of blacks.
Some of us never made false pretenses. If we hated our job, the hostile work environment, and our bosses, we told him so. (And, so came the expression of "giving them a piece of my mind", but not all. Their response was an arrogant ultimatum: Love it or leave it.
Those who would assimilate would have to endure these dismissive put-downs for decades to come. They, however, in due time, would rise from tokenism to new positions of authority. Corporate culture and practices began to change. But the angry horde of black men in the labor market found themselves drifting from one demeaning position of employment to another. Having to put up with hostile white people on the job became a way of life, even unto today.
“I tell you something, boy,” a white co-worker told me. “That Martin Luther Coon is gonna to get hisself killed. Don’t you agree he's nothing but a trouble-making nigger?”
Be careful, Eddie Griffin, how you answer that question. Your job was on the line if you answer one way or the other. It was a trap to weed me out of the manufacturing plant. My boss and my boss’s boss, and his boss over him, were all white, and they were all prejudice. These were the same men who took a pair of scissors and cut off my beard before they would hire me. But until this day, I do not believe they hired me out of love. They hired me because they were taking government money on contracts and had historically be spending the wealth paying good wages to an all-white workforce. Now the government required diversity. But the old southern ways died hard.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, they celebrated. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, they celebrated. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, they celebrated again. These were not secret celebrations, but big bonfire events.
On April 5, 1968, the day after MLK’s assassination, I bought my first gun. Gun sales skyrocketed, even in the white community. Everybody expected race war.
They called it an open season on black men. Black jack rabbits, they called us. Shoot first, ask questions later. And so we made a song: Shotgun... Shoot him before he runs. In response, black men began to carve out turfs. So began the turf wars which, to date, has never ended.
The old once all-white police force began a recruitment drive to hire more minority officers work inside these exclusive enclaves ravished by violence. White officers, like Jodie Fee and Bush, were no longer welcome inside the 'hood. For as long as I could remember, there were “shakedown cops” who took graft from bootleggers, payoffs from pimps, and sexual favors from black prostitutes. Now they faced an armed insurrection.
We called it the Black Power Movement.