Investigating the segregated South
Mollie Finch Belt | 10/24/2013, 6:01 p.m. | Updated on 10/25/2013, 7:42 p.m.
The Dallas Examiner
Last Saturday at the closing banquet of the Texas Conference of NAACP Branches, the association awarded me the highest honor of the state NAACP, the 2013 Texas Hero. Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice was also named a 2013 Texas Hero.
The keynote speaker was Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter who has uncovered substantial evidence to convict murderers of civil rights workers in the 60’s. Information he discovered through interviews and other methods has been used to find, help convict and put behind bars four Klansmen: Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, for ordering the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vermon Dahmer in 1966, Bobby Cherry for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls, and Edgar Ray Killen for helping organize the June 21, 1964, killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
We have all read about the many murders of civil rights workers in the 60s in Mississippi and Alabama – people working for Blacks to have the right to vote. These people sacrificed their lives so that Blacks could vote.
His presentation made me reflect on my childhood living in Tuskegee, Ala. I remembered riding in the car with my mother and father from Alabama to Texas to visit my grandparents on holidays. My father always had a loaded gun under his seat, and we could not stop and use the restroom anywhere. Many gas stations had signs – “No restrooms for Negroes.”
Alabama was very segregated – more so than Texas. I only saw the Black side of town. In fact, as a young child I didn’t know White people lived in Tuskegee.
My father stayed in Tuskegee at the end of World War II to work as personnel director at the Veterans Administration Hospital. My mother taught mathematics at Tuskegee Institute.
We didn’t shop for clothes or groceries in Tuskegee. We went to Columbus, Ga., to grocery shop and to Atlanta, Ga., to buy clothes.
My mother carried her poll tax in her wallet – it was precious to her. She told me later that when Negroes would go to downtown Tuskegee to get their poll tax, officials inside would hang a “Closed” sign on the door. So when she was finally able to get her poll tax, she kept it in a secure place.
I remember a time when my mother needed oral surgery. My father took her to the nearest oral surgeon in Montgomery, Ala. – the surgeon told my father he didn’t treat “Negroes.” My father told him, I am not asking you to treat my wife, just take X-rays of her mouth. The surgeon took the X-rays; we traveled to New York where my mother had her surgery in a hospital.
I understand now why my grandparents did not want us living in Alabama. I didn’t understand the life-threatening situations that were all around me at the time. Now I know Alabama was dangerous. They feared something would happen to us; we were not safe.
We lived in fear – but as a child I didn’t know.
Jerry Mitchell and his family have learned to live with fear, as well. He did not admit it, but from what I understand, they have endured threats from Klansmen and others for years.
Mitchell is a White man. He could not have obtained this information had he been Black. White racists felt comfortable sharing with him what had been done, who did it, etc. – not knowing it would be used in court later to convict killers of civil rights workers.
Nevertheless, he stated there are still many more unsolved cases.
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