As a journalist, I spend a lot of time traveling Florida’s blue highways and back roads. I am a native Floridian, and I always have been keenly aware of the racism and general intolerance in the state, especially in our rural interior and the Panhandle.
As migrant farm laborers, my parents, my siblings and I lived mostly in Broward, Palm Beach, Lake and Putnam counties. We usually lived outside "sundown towns." These towns were bastions of racism that barred African-Americans and other minority groups after sundown. Punishment was usually severe for missing sundown.
During those years, we knew our place. Our fear of white people and white people’s hatred of us were equally palpable. All around us were Confederate flags and other Dixieland iconography to remind us of racial separation and white superiority.
In many towns, such as Palatka in Putnam County, where we worked, Confederate statues stood guard at official government facilities. The specter of these monuments was intimidating. We always gave them wide berth.
The time came — following passage of the Civil Rights Act and other such measures – when some roadside Confederate symbols disappeared from private yards and along roadways.
Now, nearly two generations later, with the election of President Donald Trump, Johnny Reb rides again, yelling and waving the flag with renewed urgency.
As I recently drove back roads from St. Petersburg to the Pahokee Marina on Lake Okeechobee, I realized the number of Confederate flags on private land and on pickups had proliferated since Trump’s ascendency. The feeling of entering sundown towns returned.
Most properties sporting flags are shacks and rundown trailers. These are poor white people. And more and more pickups across the state now tout Confederate symbols and Trump stickers.
On this trip, I approached Arcadia with intentions of using the bathroom and buying a drink at a service station I had patronized since the 1980s.
As I pulled into the station, I saw a huge canopy on an easement, shading Trump memorabilia and iconography. It was breathtaking. I was surprised to see several women sporting gaudy Trump earrings, necklaces and bracelets.
I parked as far from the canopy as I could without being on the highway. Dozens of shoppers came and went. I got out of my truck and grabbed my phone to take photos. As I walked to the canopy, a large white man wearing a red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap stepped in my path.
I instinctively looked around and realized I was the only black person there.
"You need something?" the man asked me.
I knew the routine: White people steadily walked past us, and he did not ask any of them if they "need something." I was the black outsider at a Trump celebration.
I told him I wanted to look at the merchandise, take some photos and perhaps buy a souvenir. Ordinarily, I would have gone to my truck, retrieved my press badge and showed it to him. In this instance, I sensed that my being a badge-carrying member of the "fake news media" would have turned existential.
He asked if I was a Trump supporter. I told him I was not.
"Nothing here for you," he said.
The longer I stood there, the more convinced I became the man was not the owner of the business nor was he an employee. He was a local Trump supporter who saw me as the enemy.
Not pushing my luck, I went to my truck, turned on the air conditioner and watched white people shop. It was a festive affair, the gathering of a dedicated brotherhood.
Driving away, I realized I had relived a moment of old Florida. I had seen members of the Trump cult celebrate their demagogue, the president of the United States.
Trump was not physically present. He did not have to be. His spirit, his prejudices and his hatreds were manifested everywhere and in every piece of iconography. I did not belong there.