Selma, Alabama - March, 1965
All the news coverage over the past few days about the anniversary of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama dredged up some very painful memories for me - many of which I'd just as soon forget. As I watched the news coverage of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, here, pander to the black congregation in Selma last weekend, it reminded me just how shameless politicians can be as they campaign over the bloodied bodies from the past. As I heard Obama - an articulate man - break into his version of "black speak" and listened to Hillary "preach" to the crowd in her best "southern" dialect it made me sick.
At the time of the marches in Selma that Obama and Clinton fought for podium time to commemorate I was in the United States Army and was in the middle of helicopter flight training. On Saturday, March 6, 1965, the day before the first of three marches - what has become known in that part of the world as Bloody Sunday - a classmate and I drove through Selma enroute from the Primary Helicopter Training School at Fort Wolters, Texas (near Mineral Wells) to the Advanced School at Fort Rucker - where Alabama, Florida and Georgia join to form the armpit of the south. As we drove my 1957 Ford across the Edmund Pettus Bridge we saw a couple hundred State Police cars congregated at the headquarters at the base of the bridge. Since we had been immersed in flight training and a de facto Officer's Candidate School for several months, we were virtually unaware of the political climate around us at that time. We did notice the atmosphere, though. It was like a pre-lynching scene in an old B movie. If we'd been stopped that tense morning - two anglos driving a car with California license plates and a loaded 357 Magnum pistol under the passenger's seat - we'd have been lucky to be thrown in jail. Keep in mind that this was around the time when three civil rights activists had been kidnapped and murdered not too far away in Mississippi.
We drove on through Selma, leaving behind the violence the next day portrayed in the photo above, and went on our way to our new duty station and continued with our training to become what would be the nucleus of the first air mobile unit in the Army, the 1st Air Cavalry Division out of Fort Benning, Georgia - an organization which was shipped enmasse to Viet Nam in the fall of 1965. The experiences of that organization were featured in the movies, "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now".
Circumstances conspired to eliminate me from flight status - a health issue that remained un-diagnosed until well after I left the Army the end of 1965. As a result, I spent from March until December of that year assigned to Fort Rucker, so I got a real first-hand dose of what life was like in the bowels of the segregated south.
The closest town of any size was Dothan, Alabama. Occasionally, some buddies and I would venture into town to the lone movie theater to see the most recent releases. I'll never forget my reaction the first time I saw that theater, with a separate entrance for blacks, who were forced to purchase tickets at a separate window and were required to sit in the balcony, entering through a separate, outside entrance. This was a time where separate drinking fountains were maintained for blacks and whites. The KKK was still prolific and active. In Alabama at that time it seemed to me that the white residents of that state worshiped University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, Governor George Wallace and God, in that order.
Two weeks before I mustered out of the Army there was a cross burned on the lawn of a black sergeant - on post, in government housing. This was not a good time in this country.
I recall sitting in the day room on post during the summer of 1965, watching the Watts riots as they unfolded. Being from Los Angeles, I had a special interest because my best friend was a rookie Los Angeles Police Officer at the time and was up to his neck in that turmoil. Until the time of those riots our post seemed to be happily integrated, with black and white soldiers living harmoniously together. The riots changed that. From that point on, blacks and whites segregated themselves in our day room, watching the news of the day in small same-race clusters. When the news showed black rioters looting stores and setting them afire, the clusters of blacks would cheer. When it showed National Guard and police units firing on looters, the clusters of whites would cheer. You could almost chew the tension.
I mention this today because, for more than a year I have felt a similar tension building in Costa Mesa. There's a cadre of unhappy folks in our city who apparently feel that the Latinos among us are the root of every problem in our city. Among that cadre are the current majority on the City Council - Mayor Allan Mansoor, Mayor Pro Tem Eric Bever and rookie rubber stamp council member Wendy Leece. Because they now have the power to do so, they have been methodically taking steps to make the lives of Latinos in our community difficult in hopes that they will leave our city. They've used the lightning rod issue of "illegal immigration" as their wedge to attack every entity or program that provides support to the Latino community.
I'm saddened by what our alleged leaders are doing to this city, much as I was saddened while living in the south in the mid-1960s, watching up close and personal the inhumanity and violence that occurred. Many of you who will read these words were not alive at that time. If you had been, you would understand what a terrible time it was for this country and certainly wouldn't wish to have those days re-created here in Costa Mesa more than 40 years later.
If you read the coverage of that time in our country, I hope you will begin to develop a new perspective on current events in this city and involve yourselves in the correction of the course we seem to be on - a course infested with intolerance and bigotry. If you don't, who will?