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20 years ago, a murder rekindled racism in Brooksville

Twenty years ago in Brooksville, if you were black and looking for reasons to be resentful, you had plenty from which to choose.

Just the year before, African-American leaders had asked the city to rename a street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. More than 1,000 residents signed a petition to stop it, and that low-cost crumb thrown to black communities all over the country didn't get thrown to south Brooksville until 2000.

At the time — we're talking 1990 again — no black resident had ever been elected to the City Council and the highest-ranking African-American city employee was a garbage collection supervisor making $19,000 per year.

It had recently become clear that a federal grant meant to improve life for black residents had mostly just improved the bank accounts of white contractors and engineers.

The Ku Klux Klan had visited a couple of times in recent years to hold rallies in front of another slap in the face — the downtown statue of a Confederate soldier.

Then, of course, there were the everyday insults, the slurs black people were not necessarily aware of because racists tended to wait until the coast was clear before using them. But the assumption that every white person would agree with them — what did that say about our town?

Well, that Brooksville was a stew pot of old-fashioned Southern racism.

That's what the Times basically said after the murder, 20 years ago today, of 19-year-old Russell Coats. Coats was killed after a night of parking lot fights that didn't start off as racially divided, but ended up that way: white kids facing off against black teenagers (and one 21-year-old man) at the Oak Park Apartments off U.S. 41.

When a gun was fired, everybody scattered. Coats, who was white, fell down. A handful from the black group gathered around, beating him, with one of them pounding the end of board into his skull.

The standard response from city leaders was that it was just a bunch of bad kids who had too much beer and too little to do.

But to Times reporters and editors, and a few other people in town, these kids were acting out on what they'd been learning all their lives.

"It was totally racial,'' said Chip Harp, a lawyer who represented one of seven black teenagers charged with first-degree murder in Coats' death and convicted of lesser charges. "They were basically just typical kids, and this was the result of their upbringing and their times.''

What else made it such a dramatic story?

The toughness — the fists, the parking lots, the kids "bowing up'' to one another, as they called squaring off to fight. Future Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, who helped cover the story for the Times, put it this way: "Brooksville is a town where one man's ability to whip another man still means something. Fights are a regular happening, and all it takes to get one started is a little beer and a parking lot.''

And, as much as we reporters piled scorn on Kenny Schreffler, the white teenager in the middle of every fight that night, the coverage, intentionally or not, glamorized him as — in Harp's words — "that skinny little white kid that beat the hell out of that black guy.''

Of course, none of it was ever that simple.

For one thing, "Kenny had help,'' said Billy Healis, a supervisor at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, who as a 17-year-old Hernando High School student watched the fight that led to the showdown at Oak Park.

The violence really was the work of a few bad kids, or at least ones who turned out to be bad. Schreffler and all seven of the young black men charged went on to be convicted of unrelated crimes.

Boredom did indeed play a part, Healis said: "The big thing was just to drive through town on Friday night and find the parking lot where everyone was hanging out and just join them. That's really all there was to do in town back then.''

Fights were actually rare, Healis said, and black and white teenagers hung around together in the parking lots. This impression came across in court files, too. For kids reared in a caldron of racial hatred, they seemed to get along pretty well.

Before, maybe, but not afterward.

The pallbearers at Coats' funeral wore white T-shirts as a show of racial solidarity. The Klan made another unwelcome visit. And a lot of those interracial friendships didn't last.

"Everybody was picking sides,'' Healis said.

But, to the credit of Brooksville, most of us didn't like it.

We didn't like the distrust and anger. We didn't like being singled out as racist, backward and violent by publications such as the Miami Herald and USA Today. We didn't like thinking of ourselves that way.

The city elected its first black council member, Luther Cason, later in 1990. Mayor John Tucker formed a coalition to address racism in Brooksville. Not much changed, really, but as symbols they seemed to push the town forward.

And now? Well, it's true that as recently as two years ago, a county Utilities Department worker thought it was a joke to drape a noose around a black co-worker's neck and that, as the Rev. Clarence Clark said, some black Brooksville residents are made to feel like outsiders when they speak in their own City Hall.

But it's also true we live in a country with a black president and in a city with women serving as mayor and city manager. Leaders of Brooksville and the county are committed to improving roads and water and sewer service in south Brooksville, where, earlier this year, the Sheriff's Office opened a community center.

"Things have changed dramatically,'' said Clark, 42, who grew up in south Brooksville. "We're seeing the old regime going away and the new regime coming up.''

Whatever the true situation was 20 years ago, I can tell as a parent and youth coach that kids of both races seem to mix easily now. I can't remember the last time someone pulled me aside to make a racist comment or when I've been in a situation where it mattered who could whip whom.

20 years ago, a murder rekindled racism in Brooksville 05/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 9:39pm]

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