January 26, 2001

First Person

Coming of Age During the Civil Rights Era: A Personal Journey From Birmingham to San Diego

(Editor's Note: February is Black History Month. This First Person essay shares a personal perspective.)

by Robert Fikes, Jr.
San Diego State University

Fifty-one years ago I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of a nurse and a construction worker. My grandparents migrated to the "big city" from a coal mining town and a tenant farm. My parents, my older sister, and I lived in three homes before I, at age 6, finally settled in Titusville, one of the three or four all-Black middle class communities in the city at the time.

Despite what I am about to tell you, overall I had a happy childhood, mainly because there was stability in the home and because I could depend on a loving family, friends and relatives, and supportive institutions like the church and schools. But I also grew up in an era that was at times very scary and inhumane. I survived it all, but there were some close calls.

Looking back, the thing I am most proud of is the courage of certain people: my workaholic father, Robert Sr., and in particular my mother, Catherine, my grandmother, Jessie, and my great grandmother, Frances. Even now, the things I try not to dwell on are, as a child seeing bus drivers taking a sign that read "Whites Only" and attaching it to a seat in middle of where tired Black folks were sitting and watching them get up and move further toward the back of the bus; once going around to the side door of a restaurant marked "Negroes" to pick up a take-out order; and seeing "Colored" and "White" water fountains in the downtown department stores.

These things had a profound effect on me as a child. From age 6 till the day I graduated from college my main goal in life was to leave Birmingham, leave Alabama, leave the South.

When we see old film clips of people demonstrating and protesting in the South in that era, the impression is given that most Black people were aware of what was going on and that a lot of them were directly involved in getting things changed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people were concerned with just surviving, feared that they might get fired from their jobs, or worse if they lived in some small rural town.

But there were rare exceptions like Grandma Frances—a tough, stern, skinny, dark-skinned old woman who I never saw crack a smile. I remember whenever she came to visit she was hypercritical of us kids and would give advice to my mother and grandmother on how to "straighten us out." I didn't like her one bit. It wasn't until many years later I came to admire her when I was told that she was one of the first to try and get Blacks to register to vote—this probably occurred in the 1920s or earlier—at a time when involvement in such an activity could have meant your death or disappearance.

I wondered why she dared to risk so much. Her activities apparently inspired some of her offspring because by the mid 1950s both my mother and grandmother were attending regular meetings of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. On occasion, they brought me along to the meetings which rotated among churches in the area. I remember people preaching, singing, and chanting to get up enough nerve to then go out to demonstrate in the streets against segregation.

My mother and grandmother both participated in the March on Washington in 1963 where they heard MLK deliver the "I Have a Dream" speech. But mainly what they did was work behind the scenes. They would send me out into the neighborhood to distribute fliers telling people when important meeting were being held and to remind them to register and to get out and vote. I can still remember distributing a sample ballot (a replica of the real ballot) that had several white roosters aligned in the left border. Everyone knew what the white rooster signified, and if for some reason you were clueless all you had to do was read the motto attached to each rooster which read something like "white supremacy forever." It took a court order to get rid of that rooster.

Mostly it was the younger people who volunteered and took part in the marches. But I was between 9 and 13 at the height of the marches in Birmingham which were brutally handled by a singularly diabolical man named Bull Connor, the police commissioner, who had his men use clubs and fire hoses to intimidate demonstrators.

That famous film clip that everyone has seen where Bull Connor's cops are beating and hosing demonstrators—well, I was there, about 200 feet behind the crowd that was taking the brunt of the violence. I couldn't see it all clearly. My most vivid memory of that day was of my father who hadn't been anywhere near a demonstration before, or had ever attended a civil rights meeting where they drilled into you the necessity of non-violence. I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing him searching for something on the ground. Searching, it seemed, for something to throw at the police. Luckily, some adults saw him searching intently and walked over and talked him out of it.

In terms of race relations, in those days Birmingham had the reputation for being the worse big city in the South. We used to refer to it as "Bombingham." I remember at around age 11 or 12 being lifted out of my bed and nearly thrown to the floor by a powerful bomb blast that damaged my elementary school a few blocks away. After this, the men in the neighborhood organized a night patrol. I can still see daddy late at night clutching a shotgun, peeping through a window in the garage observing passing cars.

I can also recollect being in the middle of a church service on September 15, 1963 and seeing my minister commandeer the microphone and, in a calm, controlled voice announce to the congregation that he had just received word that 16th Street Baptist Church had just been bombed and that everyone, in an orderly fashion, should leave through the nearest exit. Later that day on the evening news we learned that four young girls attending Sunday school had been blown apart by a bomb, and that one of the girls, it turned out, was little Denise McNair, who lived just across our backyard fence.

Truly these were dangerous times. Several times I felt my life threatened. The first time was in Marion, Alabama where I spent part of each summer on my uncle's farm. Fun on the farm with my cousins was the most fun I had as a kid. I was about 8 or 9 and I very distinctly remember sitting out on the front porch with relatives one afternoon when a huge motorcade lead by an old, brown Chevy, mounted with the largest megaphone I had ever seen, slowly passed on the road in front of my uncle's house. These were the shining knights Ku Klux Klan announcing that they were just driving through checking on things and that there was going to be meeting that night. They didn't make any specific threats. They didn't have to. I and my relatives just sort of sat there completely speechless. We realized our peaceful little rural community had been invaded by hateful outsiders, and that we really had no protection should those good ol' boys were to suddenly leave their cars to have a little fun with us.

But the most frightening situation occurred when I was 10 years old and was walking home from school with a few classmates. Just as we were about to cross this intersection a young white man dressed in black pulled up to the curb on a motorcycle. His demeanor was very menacing and you could easily see there was hate in his eyes. I can't remember the exact words he spoke to us but the two or three questions he asked let us know he meant to do us harm if we didn't respond sheepishly and address him as "Sir". It was quite obvious to even us kids that this guy was psychotic, and was looking for the slightest excuse to do us harm.

But apparently that day, at least, we posed no threat to his manhood or to the racial hierarchy he believed in. So he roared off. A day or two later I heard on the radio that, according to witnesses, a young white man dressed in black riding on a motorcycle had shot to death a 9-year-old black kid for no apparent reason. He was eventually captured, but an all-white jury acquitted him, which was typical in those days. I never told my parents about that incident.

Aside from the above real-life horror stories, a lot of things happened in this period that bordered on the bizarre, and you sometimes didn't know whether to laugh or cry or do both at the same time.

Take for example the time when the suave, popular singer Johnny Mathis came to town to help the civil right cause by giving a benefit concert at Rickwood Stadium. Halfway through his performance part of the stage collapsed. Bam! Johnny was well aware of Birmingham's reputation for bombings. They say Johnny, who was a track star before he became a singer, jumped off the part of the stage that was still standing and sprinted straight out of the stadium, never looking back, headed to parts unknown. They say he ran all the way to the airport, and never returned to our fair city.

Lots of "outside agitators" came to Birmingham to support the civil rights cause. The two I remember best were Martin Luther King Jr. who I saw on three occasions (once up close and personal) and Malcolm X. I actually saw both men together on the same stage. I was between 13 and 15. My impression of Malcolm was that he seemed cold and aloof. Not the kind of person you could warm up to. Martin, on the other hand, seemed the kind of person anyone could talk to and become friends with. But there was one very odd thing about Martin that was readily apparent to anyone that I have never seen written about or discussed: his disconcerting nervousness.

The first time I saw him on stage I was amazed at his inability to sit still for even a second. I'm sure he had a lot on his mind, but it was very disturbing to see him constantly twitching and jerking his body, crossing and uncrossing his legs, etc. You were happy to hear the introductions end so that, finally, he could get up to speak before he ran you nuts watching him fidgeting. But once he sat down this maddening routine would commence again. Martin was also a lot shorter that that I had expected.

One of the advantages of living in Titusville was that it had a branch library. Since about age 8, aside from playing with the neighborhood kids, my favorite thing to do was to run to the library. Oh, what freedom I had there. On my own, by myself, no parental control, no bossy sister to contend with. And there was just so much to see and explore. But it took seven years, i.e., after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that I could legally walk into the downtown central library. I remember my minister waving his new library card in front of the congregation and boasting that he had been the first Black to walk through the doors. It's safe to say that I was one of the first Black kids to use the downtown library.

The mid 1960s was when formerly all-white schools were forced to integrate. My school integration episode came about because my Catholic high school shut down at the end of my junior year and I had to finish my senior year elsewhere. The nearest school with a good reputation was Ramsay High which had been officially desegregated a year prior to my arrival by two brave girls who attended my church, and thanks to a battalion of police. They had it pretty tough, but by the time I arrived in 1966 things had settled down quite a bit. But I always tried to sit in a chair in the middle of the row that was closest to a wall; that way I avoided getting hit so often by spitballs and other assorted missiles.

Several years ago there was a spate of articles published by Black authors which sort of romanticized the good old days living in the South and tried to point out the upside of segregation. Well, having lived there at a time of great turmoil, I don't buy it. Segregation was a sick and perverse system that twisted people's perceptions of who they were and what they were capable of. Let me give you some examples of how it affected me as a youngster. I'm going to take a chance here and admit a couple of things I have only mentioned to one or two people in my entire life.

One strange way segregation affected me was that subconsciously (and let me emphasize again, subconsciously) I honestly believed all whites were, in a physiological sense, cold-blooded. How did I come to know this to be the case? One day at Ramsay High while walking up a crowded staircase on my way to the next class session, my bare arm brushed against a white student's bare arm and like a bolt of lightning the thought struck me: "Hey, they're warm-blooded, just like us." Later that day I reflected on that touching incident and concluded that the reason I had felt whites were cold-blooded was, essentially, because in my 17 years on earth I couldn't recall ever touching one of them—not even a simple handshake.

Another significant way segregation affected me at first seems like something positive. Moving from a segregated school to an integrated one made me more competitive and my grades improved. This pattern was repeated when I left predominately Black Tuskegee Institute and entered the University of Alabama and, later, the University of Minnesota. Academically, I was a much better student at the mostly white schools. I think I know why. Again, subconsciously, I was trying not only to live up to my parent's expectations, but I had taken on the impossible burden of representing every Black person I ever knew or loved. Also, I think I was more competitive because I felt I was in unfriendly territory and this triggered a defensive response in me to fight to survive. At the all-Black schools I was satisfied with just getting by. At the mostly white schools I was there to kick butt, academically speaking.

At Tuskegee Institute there were numerous and sundry demonstrations on campus in the late1960s. In regards to Black history, I did see Muhammad Ali on campus in this prime; and I saw Gen. Chappie James, who later became the first Black to head NORAD.

I graduated from Tuskegee Institute in 1970. That summer, after three months on the job at Travelers Insurances Company, and on the very day that I wrecked the company car, I was admitted to the graduate school of the University of Minnesota to study history.

Minnesota was culture shock. Almost devoid of Black people and unbelievably cold. I had never met so many friendly white people before, and it was a very progressive state. On the other hand, I never had so many people yelling the n-word at me from passing cars, even passing bicycles. And in Minneapolis I had my first experience with bad cops (something today we call "racial profiling" and police brutality).

The two important figures I remember best while at the University were radical Angela Davis (who, by the way, is a native of Birmingham) and Rev. Jesse Jackson. I sat front row center in the classroom where Angela Davis spoke because for the longest time I had had a crush on Angela. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I didn't go to hear her thoughts on the "Revolution." I went there to gawk at her. She turned out to be a less than rousing public speaker, but I forgave her.

I saw Jesse Jackson twice, once in Minneapolis and once in St Paul. After speaking to a crowd in St. Paul he went to a side room to chat informally with about 15 Black university students. I was shocked at his use of street language. After all, he was a minister and a disciple of Martin Luther King. I expected someone like him to always take the high ground. I wondered if he was trying to tailor his language to us students to appear hip, and that had he been chatting with a group of ministers or businessmen or politician he would have selected his words more carefully. Maybe he was overconfident that the language he was using away from the stage would never be recited in a news story. He was wrong. Several years later, he was interviewed by a Black reporter for the Washington Post who recorded every word he said, including the word "Hymietown," which Jesse has been apologizing for the past 25 years or so.

I was in Minnesota for 6 years, picked up master's degrees in modern European history and library science, and in between degrees I worked for a year and a half at the Pillsbury Company. I left Minnesota for my first job as a librarian at the University of Virginia. Six months later, in 1977, I drove across country with all my earthly belongings to start my new job at SDSU.

The Black community in San Diego was different in a number of respects from most other such communities in large cities I knew about. The Black population here was more dispersed, more passive, and it was leaderless. And I had never encountered Black Republicans before. "Hmmm, odd," I thought. This was all quite intriguing to me. To better acquaint myself with my surroundings and better understand the mystery of the Black population here I started investigating their history. One thing led to another. I wrote a series of articles for the local Black newspaper called the Voice & Viewpoint, which led to the San Diego Historical Society asking me to write an article in the Journal of San Diego History, which I did in 1981, and which is still being sold as a booklet in bookstores and gift shops (and it's occasionally distributed to public school students).

It's funny how when you start one writing project it leads you to write about something else you hadn't considered. And, yes, if I had to, I could probably relate in some way every publication I ever did to spending by formative years in Alabama.

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