BROOKSVILLE — When it came time to play Dixie, Robert Brooks put down his horn.
It was Hernando High's Friday night pep rally, Oct. 10, 1969. Brooks, a black senior who was playing baritone that night, refused to play a song that he associated with racism.
"I couldn't do it," Brooks recalled.
As white students sang Dixie, black students broke out into a song of their own: We Shall Overcome.
Verbal threats ensued. The following Monday, black students showed up wearing signs demanding equality and an end to Dixie at school events. Twenty-nine were suspended when they refused to remove their sign, spurring a walkout of the black students that lasted into the following week.
On Friday — 40 years after the pep rally — former students and administrators gathered at Pasco-Hernando Community College to recall and reflect on the tumultuous time of desegregation in Hernando County.
The song was a symptom of a larger issue, panelists agreed. Blacks were forced to integrate by closing their own school — Moton, an all-black K-12 school in Brooksville — but weren't welcomed at their new one.
"I think at the heart of the problem, it just wasn't done right, and Dixie was the catalyst to express our frustration," said Imani Asukile, a Hernando student at the time who is now district coordinator of multicultural student affairs and equity services at PHCC. "We were at the school, but we were not a part of it."
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By the late 1960s, racial tensions were running high in Hernando County.
In 1965, a few black students like Asukile volunteered to attend Hernando High and suffered for it. One former student told the Times in a 1998 story that she was regularly spit upon by white students.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis in April 1968. Black students mourned not just the loss of King that year, but also of Moton School after a Supreme Court ruling that led to full integration.
In the fall of 1968, busloads of black children from South Brooksville headed north to the previously all-white education complex where Brooksville Elementary and Hernando High schools now stand.
Of about 1,000 students at the school, 175 were black.
The song Dixie originated in the blackface minstrel show of the 1850s and quickly grew popular across the United States. Its lyrics, written in a comic, exaggerated version of African American Vernacular English, tell the story of a freed black slave pining for the plantation of his birth. The song was adopted as a de facto anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
When the controversy over the song erupted, NAACP chapter officials held a meeting in Kennedy Park. The School Board didn't respond to requests for concessions, so students were encouraged to walk out.
David Cook, a Hernando High student and president of the NAACP Youth Council at the time, recalls when Lorenzo Hamilton, formerly a coach at Moton, came to him that Tuesday, Oct. 14.
"We're going to get all the kids together and we're going to leave because something is not right here," Cook recalls Hamilton saying. "That man was brave enough to say what we should do in order for us to get a better education. That goes with me no matter what I do."
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Roger Landers was 27 years old when he landed the job at Hernando High. Landers, who is white, spent two years as principal at Moton, so he had a connection to the black community that most did not. But he recalls being pressured by the white community to "show the students who was boss" and take the side of Dixie.
Landers said he tried to get the School Board to understand the black students' perspective, why they considered Dixie a racist song.
"I was viewed as a turncoat," Landers said. "I was saying, 'Listen to what the students have to say.' It had to come to an end. We had to respect each other."
Landers and other panelists on Friday said then-Hernando Sheriff Sim L. Lowman tended to agitate rather than keep the peace. Lowman deputized white men who threatened violence by their presence with dogs and billy clubs, panelists recalled.
"We could have handled it if left alone," Landers said. "Unfortunately, we were not left alone."
The Hernando High faculty approved 48-4 a resolution stating that the song and the conflict caused by it were "detrimental" to the school.
Athletic director and head football coach Vince Thompson recalled feeling caught in the middle. He was ambivalent about Dixie and at one point was quoted as saying he didn't "give a damn" if the song was played or not, Thompson said.
"Who did that make mad? Everybody," he said.
But his thoughts should have been secondary, he said.
"I'm not sure people gave enough thought to the kids," Thompson said.
David Sasser, student council president at the time, recalls how perplexed white students were at first by the controversy. They didn't see racism in the song.
"When (the student council) finally sat down and talked about it and the white students were given perspective, we finally understood," Sasser said.
He recalls a survey at the time showed most students wanted the song to be played, but most also agreed that wasn't necessary if it brought discord.
"An overwhelming majority of students didn't want this to go on," Sasser said. "It wasn't worth it to have that song played and they wanted to stop it."
The student council asked the School Board to order the band not to play the song. But the School Board did the opposite, requiring the song to be played at every home game.
Eventually, though, negotiations bore fruit.
The board agreed to appoint Lorenzo Hamilton as Hernando High's vice principal — the school's first black administrator. Black students were also allowed to sit in on student council meetings, though they didn't have a vote until later.
On Oct. 21, the students returned to school, and the boycott was over.
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Dixie was still played that year, but it was more subdued, Hamilton recalled. By the next year, the song wasn't played at all.
"We understood if you keep fighting, if you keep plucking away, someday change will come," Hamilton said.
Cook said the symposium, and hearing from Sasser and Landers, helped bring more closure to the tumult.
"I think a lot of us had doubts in our mind, and I wish they were here to hear," Hamilton said, turning to Landers. "I appreciate what you did for us."
Hamilton and other panelists said that change is evident in Hernando today by African Americans in positions of power.
The district has its first black leader in interim superintendent Sonya Jackson, who has said she plans to apply for the permanent position. James Yant, who was present Friday, is on the School Board.
Several men on the panel said they grew from the experience.
"It taught me to learn how to the take the leadership role and run with it," Brooks said.
Subsequent generations have the panelists to thank, said Timothy Beard, a vice president at PHCC.
"If my generation can see better than yours, it's not because we have better vision, it's because we stand on the shoulders of giants," Beard said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.