Monday, March 05, 2007

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?

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6 Comments:

Anonymous dvs said...

Those were sad times and yet, at least a catalyst for change. Those times stand as a poignant reminder that it is far too easy to accept the status quo to the detriment of our fellow human beings.

Still, history has taught us time and time again that indifference to those in need is never good for society as a whole. It is always in our best interest both morally and civilly to help our neighbors.

After all, the motivation to move to a new home and endure the hostility of neighbors while living in the shadows of a foreign legal and economic system must surely be provided by a strong want of a better life for one’s self and family. A motivation that great is not going to be deterred by simpleton measures the likes of which we have recently seen.

No, anyone with that strong of a motivation is going to endure. The question we have to ask ourselves is are we going to lift those that would build a better life for themselves up and us with them or are we going to try to beat them down and suffer or own ruination, even if that ruination is only moral, in the process.

3/05/2007 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Humberto said...

Geoff:

Nice. Let's just hope Costa Mesans finally realize we are close to getting into a segregated world. Institutional discrimination is on the rise in our hometown, just like in the South, thanks to a few individuals who think race is everything.

3/05/2007 10:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Rob Dickson said...

Geoff,

Thanks for a thoughtful post. I struggle, however, to see the similarities between the horrors perpetrated on African American citizens in the dark days of our past and the "plight" of the illegal immigrant in Costa Mesa. Certainly, there are those who have similarly racist and malicious intent towards Latinos - as evidenced in the public writings of a certain "neighbor" of yours.

I find it ironic that you criticize Obama and Clinton for pandering to the black population of Selma - while you turn around and compare the current "tension" in Costa Mesa to the deep south of the 1960s.

There is absolutely no similarity whatsoever.

When thousands of possibly illegal immigrants marched on City Hall, bearing flags of foreign nations, protesting the City's desire to ENFORCE THE LAW, they were not beaten down and no dogs were set upon them. In fact - our police were admirable peacekeepers. In fact, the tables were turned. U.S. Citizens were called racists, Nazis, etc.

I am one of the 70%+ of American citizens who want our immigration laws respected. I am not a racist, nor do I wish harm or unjust treatment on any of my neighbors here in Costa Mesa.

I am also a veteran. I respect this country and its institutions, traditions, values, and laws. I ask that those CHOOSING to live here do the same.

I sincerely admire your efforts to remind everyone that the issue of illegal immigration is, at its core, about people. There is an element that wants to deport everyone, regardless of the consequences (which I think would be more detrimental to our culture than to the actual deportees). Deportation, while extreme, is a legal, Constitutionally valid, due-process ensured mechanism for removing those who have violated our laws. It is a staple of Western European immigration enforcement as well. You think Mansoor & Co. are tough? Try being an African attempting to enter Spain, an Albanian entering Italy, or a Jamaican trying to land in Florida.

Those hated Minutemen? Mostly senior citizens in lawn chairs, whose sole job was to telephone or radio the Border Patrol when they witnessed someone illegally crossing the border. Yet they were spat on, beaten, blinded, and cursed vehemently by the so-called liberal left.

We are extraodinarily accomodating - which is precisely why we have the tension that exists today. This tension is hardly the product of legal citizens. As stated previously - I urge everyone reading this to read Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia. It is a scholarly examination of the immigration issue and a must read.

We have to stop blaring platitudes about immigration. Stop acting like U.S. Citizens frustrated by the impact are intolerant loons, and deal with the reality of the situation. That reality is more Santa Ana, Maywood, and Cudahy than Selma - and banal comparisons doesn't advance the debate or help anyone in Costa Mesa. They simply polarize the debate.

I sincerely desire immigration reform, so let's be real about the future of our state. We have 40% of the nations immigrants, who are largely thriving. Comparing Costa Mesa to Selma is, in my opinion, a gross overstatement that will only polarize those who know the reality of the situation.

Thanks again for the opportunity to comment.

3/06/2007 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...

Rob,

Thanks for the comment. I guess we'll just have to disagree on part of this issue. I can, and do, compare the tension in today's Costa Mesa with 1965's Selma. I was there. I saw first hand what was happening. Unless I missed you standing at my elbow way back then, I don't think you're in a position to criticize my observations on this subject.

You are right. There are differences between Costa Mesa and Selma. It's true that the demonstrators in Costa Mesa last year were treated, by and large, with much more reserve and consideration. No jack-booted police, swinging clubs.

However, the methodical steps being taken by the majority on our city council has created every bit as much tension in our city today as existed in Selma more than 40 years ago.

We do agree on illegal immigrants in this country. For the umpteenth time, I do not support illegal immigration. I don't agree on the local "solutions".

Thanks for participating.

3/06/2007 03:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Dorian said...

So the plights, struggles, and real racism are what face our Latino community in Costa Mesa? It is now compared to what the African American community endured for 150+ years. I thought the Civil Rights movement involved “legal citizens”, ones whose families were brought to America against their will, enslaved, freed and still struggled for equality by bravely standing up to institutional racism. These were real heroes. What we have now are lawbreakers trying to liken their situation to that of black Americans, then telling us that they should be given the same rights and respect for their struggles that blacks endured for so long. Quite a stretch.

Now I won’t say that some racism is not in play with the current issues involving illegal immigration but this comparison is ridiculous and a slap in the face for the struggles faced by African Americans then and still today. If the Mexicans, El Salvadorians, or whomever want to better themselves as a whole, like what occurred in our country then they should follow that same path in their own country of origin. Make a stand in their country for what is right.

The US has laws that define how legal immigration works in this country and they should be followed. Once here we have laws that dictate how our society operates and they should be followed. What most US citizens, including myself want is for the process and laws of this country followed. Breaking the law to get here and then continuing to break the law in simply unacceptable.

3/06/2007 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Rob Dickson said...

Geoff,

I appreciate where you are coming from, as the December 2005 immigration proposal was a shot across the bow of the illegal immigrant community. We will disagree, however, on the current underlying motivation for the tensions. I think that attributing it to racism (as was the genesis of the hatred, bigotry, and evil of the situation in Selma) is inappropriate and will turn people off to compromise. I know that when someone calls me a racist, I stop listening. If you really think that Mansoor & Cos. stance turns the average Costa Mesan who is against illegal immigration into a racist (and the resulting "tension"), you are missing the mark.

Race is a touchy subject, and it bears repeating that the ones spewing racist accusations and casual holocaust comparisons are the activists allegedly representing the "oppressed" Latinos in Costa Mesa, like our pal Coyotl.

I may not have been in Selma, but I was in Costa Mesa, watching the "oppressed" agressively demand that we abandon our laws. That is why I feel that the comparison is a non-starter.

Of course, I don't think you are saying that we are all racists. Maybe my age and lack of presence in Selma or the Deep South at the time is causing me to miss your point. Were there other motivating factors for the treatment of African Americans besides racist hate? Is that where you are drawing the similarities?

One thing that I will readily acknowledge is that I am almost completely ignorant of the actual sentiments of the pro-illegal immigration camp. I don't have a clue as to what tension they feel. If they are getting the message that those who oppose illegal immigration also hate Latinos - we all (you included) have a lot of work to do. Comparisons to the racism of the Deep South can only perpetuate that myth.

That is my opinion, and I appreciate the opportuinty to share it with you and your readers. As always, thank you for the thought-provoking debate.

3/06/2007 04:23:00 PM  

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