As researchers continue to unearth remains in Marianna at the closed Florida School for Boys, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, I'm transported back to the fear I experienced as a boy in Florida during Jim Crow.
The notorious reform school had two campuses, one for whites and one for blacks. We referred to it simply as "Marianna." We knew many of the horror stories about boys who went there and never saw the free world again. Our parents and other guardians used Marianna to keep us in line and out of trouble with "the law.''
The fear of a brutal, racist legal system scared many of us, forcing us to seriously weigh the consequences of our behavior. We were too afraid, for example, to make any kind of move if a law enforcement officer confronted us. We never displayed anger when hassled; anger wasn't an option for black males.
When I lived in Lake County, the racial atrocities of Sheriff Willis "Caboose" McCall were our major sources of fear. One of my uncles used to say, "A black man's life ain't worth maggot puke with Sheriff McCall."
Many black men would hide at the sight of McCall's trademark Stetson hat and Western tie. We boys learned to do the same. In addition to many years of unjust arrests and beatings of black men, McCall is perhaps best remembered for the 1951 shooting of two black men — one died — who he claimed attempted to escape from the backseat of his car as he was taking them to the Lake County jail. They were two of four black men accused of raping a white woman in Groveland. In the end, all four were exonerated.
McCall's exploits were so legendary that adults merely had to say his name in our presence to convince us to stay out of trouble. I recall nights when McCall drove through the "Negro Quarters" where I lived. If word got out ahead of time, we stayed behind closed doors.
Although McCall's terror was frightening, it paled alongside that of the Emmett Till tragedy. Emmett, a Chicago resident, was the 14-year-old boy who was lynched by white men in Money, Miss., in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Emmett was spending the summer in Mississippi with relatives. News of the murder traveled worldwide, and photos of Emmett's mutilated body gave new meaning to America's racial cruelty.
Although my contemporaries and I were more than 500 miles from Money, we were afraid. The specter of being lynched, shot in the head and mutilated for insulting a white woman never left our imaginations.
After Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, permitted her son's body to be viewed in an open casket, the entire nation was reminded that Americans, especially Southern white men, were capable of heinous race-related crimes. Emmett's face was bludgeoned beyond recognition, and a bullet hole was in his head. Having been under water for several days, the body was badly decomposed.
Jet magazine published photos of Emmett's body. For our survival, the adults in our lives used those photos to scare us, to teach us to avert our eyes in the presence of white women and to step off the sidewalk whenever one approached. We were to be obsequious, polite, unassuming — and silent. We were.
Ironically, Mamie Till knew that the South was a dangerous place for black males. Jet and Ebony magazines reported that while putting Emmett on the bus in Chicago for the trip to Mississippi, Mamie Till warned: "Be careful, Emmett. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."
Apparently, Emmett had too much youthful pride to follow his mother's advice.
Everything I've cited occurred years before the self-esteem and "black pride" era, before the civil rights movement began in earnest and long before hip-hop's ego-centered culture was created. Make no mistake: Today's young black males reject my generation's obsequiousness, politeness and silence. They reject my generation's tolerance of abuse, and they should reject it. But if they fight back violently, they still risk dying.