Patrick Frank: Recalling Gainesville's civil rights struggle
Published: Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 10:38 a.m., Gainesville, Sun
My introduction to the civil rights movement came in fits and starts. There are certain images and events that stick out in my mind. The first occurred during high school, when I went with a black kid to the Delray Beach recreation center to play basketball. We were turned away for the obvious reason: the facility was segregated.
The strange thing is that he and I did not know each other until that very day. We met on the street and somehow struck up a conversation, and decided to go together to the rec center...to no avail.
But when I moved to Gainesville, in 1962, to attend the University of Florida: that's when my involvement intensified. I was struggling to adjust to life on campus and in the community. At one point, I ended up virtually homeless after being kicked out of a rooming house for really no good reason.
I was introduced to a black lady who let me stay in her house near Alachua General Hospital. It was a ramshackle dwelling but she allowed me to sleep on the couch and fed me for a while until I got back on my feet. I remember seeing rats crawling around the kitchen at night, but no matter: this lady must have had a big heart to take in this struggling white kid whom she barely knew.
Through her I met Carol Thomas, the wife of a university physics professor who emerged as a major figure in the civil rights movement in Gainesville. She and her husband rented out a room to me. And from that point involvement in the movement became a prominent part of my experience.
I began to attend meetings of the NAACP, at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, in Gainesville, on Fifth Avenue, in the "black section" of town. I remember that Charles Chestnut Jr. was the president of the group. Eventually, I joined the NAACP Youth Council. The group was planning demonstrations to integrate restaurants and other facilities in Gainesville. I remember vividly our picketing a restaurant on University Avenue. We sat in at their lunch counter, to no avail. This must have been in 1962 or 1963.
Small details stand out. I remember that I was wearing boots at the time (an affectation of youth, I suppose) and someone played on the juke box "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" in response. Did the rednecks feel we were walking over them or that they intended to walk over us? Maybe a little of both.
We went on to picket one of the theaters downtown, which of course was also segregated. I don't recall if we succeeded or failed in our efforts at that point.
We proceeded to picket a laundry/dry cleaning facility that would not hire blacks or, I suppose, serve black customers. That's when I was assaulted on the picket line by a man whom I remember operated a street sweeper for the city. For some reason, he singled me out as the only white participant in the demonstration. The image that sticks out in my mind is of my fellow picketers surrounding me after I was knocked to the ground; to protect me with their bodies and signs. That was an amazing moment for me, an example of blacks helping whites in a moment of crisis that I will never forget.
One thing that observers may not realize is that the civil rights movement was not just about blacks helping blacks or whites helping blacks. It was also about blacks helping whites in a number of respects. For one thing, my conscience was stimulated through my involvement in the movement. For another, I came to realize how compassion and caring are sometimes manifested in a way that transcends social and cultural barriers.
Through the movement, I made a good friend: a black gentleman named George Fair, a preacher with a tiny church in the country outside Gainesville. George and I usually met in a coffee shop near the campus called Larry's. Larry's was, obviously, integrated. So was the Trailways Bus Station cafe, where we also met. We talked about the movement and he shared some scripture with me. Though he had limited reading skills, he seemed to have memorized long passages of the bible. Amazing.
George was an auto mechanic who operated out of a shack near Gainesville that had a junk yard with various car parts in the back. I remember he also had a goat tied by behind his shack. An amazing place, an amazing man.
He helped me out of many jams over the years, sometimes fixing my rattle-trap car for nothing, and one time rescuing me when my car broke down in the woods beside a country road, where I was making out with a teenage girl in the back seat. She was with the NAACP Youth Council, and participated in our demonstrations. This was actually a dangerous situation, because we constituted a mixed-race couple and if we were discovered we might have been beaten or worse. It was a different era.
One of the most striking events that occurred in Gainesville came when we were picketing the segregated cafeteria next to the campus on the very day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. They had a TV on in the cafeteria and when the new report came of the assassination, I recall the patrons inside cheering. As for us, we dropped our signs immediately, and hurried back to our apartment to watch the news.
I recall a similar incident when I was a VISTA Volunteer in Southern Illinois, and at a softball game news spread through the crowd of Martin Luther King's assassination. You guessed, it; many of the spectators cheered. I remember that my VISTA roommate at the time lost his cool and threw a chair through the window of our trailer.
Perhaps involvement in the movement at that time took my focus off of school, and my grades suffered. But in hindsight, it was worth it. Instead of remaining insulated on campus, I got involved in the community, and learned a great deal about cultural and political realities. And as I said before, my conscience was manifested in a concrete way; beyond book-learning.
My dad was not pleased with my involvement, though he was a moderate Democrat. I think he was concerned for my safety. We had a huge argument about this one day while on a road trip which, I remember, culminated with a shouting match as we crossed the St. Johns Bridge in Jacksonville. It was one of the rare occasions when we expressed genuine feelings to each other. A sad situation, but true.