In early spring, 1970, a young journalism student at the University of Alabama learned a Candlelight March to support civil rights was planned for the evening.
Nobody invited him, he just chose to attend. He was one of those full of Kennedy Camelot and Carl Elliott hopeful expectation. When he showed up at the university quadrangle at Gorgas Library at duskydark, the march was underway.
There was no chanting, perhaps the undertone of a soft song by some, but it was a starryclear, beautiful night (though chill) and a beautiful sight, the candlelight and a measured pace. The march was peaceful and calm as the night itself. Nobody gave him a candle or paid him much mind. He walked alongside the march in silent support.
He saw a young black man, in African garb, rise to challenge the administration. “This university,” he said, “is a racist institution.” There was no posturing by the crowd, which was a couple of hundred strong. There was no unrest, no displays. There were cheers but no trouble.
Then the ill wind blew in, and meant no good. Tuscaloosa police, seemingly out of nowhere, fell on the gathering like a nightmare storm, batons swinging. They suddenly just bashed into the crowd and got busy – it seems there was some sort of phantom curfew no one knew of – nor did they walk up with calm orders to disperse. They were there to hurt people and they were efficient. People were hammered down, and the frightened young man ran away.
I was that young man.
Some of us ran to a fraternity house across the way for safety where we stood on the portico and watched a fearful scene develop.
The police had removed their name tags and, for further protection, taped over their badge numbers. They hounded here and there, whacked this way and that, laying folks low. Folks were bleeding and crying and calling for mercy and rescue, and I had run away.
We stood on the porch and watched the carnage.
A cop chased down a young couple on the lawn in front of us and, with immaculate conscience I am sure, drove them to their knees. Brave we, on the porch, yelled out, “Now you stop that!” Which, of course, he didn’t. So I snuck to my car and drove back to my safe apartment while courageous heroes and heroines bled and, I guess, were cuffed and booked.
Here’s the thing: the marchers won. Stickwhipped, cursed, chased and crying, they were part of a groundswell and an inexorable new way — cue ancient English King Canute, sitting on his throne on the shore, trying to hold back the tide and, when the water lapped over his knees, deciding it was time to go back to the house.
I didn’t have a mark on me, but I left scarred, because I ran away. Few stood against many that night, courage of conviction face to face with ignorance and hate, and took their beatings. Many went home injured but proud. I went home neither. It bothered me for years, still does, some. I wished many times for a chance at redemption.
Better and wiser folks than I have cautioned to watch what one wishes for.
Five years later I was editor of the Mountain Eagle in Jasper when the Ku Klux Klan announced it would on the weekend march through the streets. And there it was. Hate and ignorance headed right at me, right in my home, right to my people, and this time I could see it coming.
Few things are more heady or dangerous than a second chance.
And I wrote an editorial. A damn good one.
(A confession: It has been nearly 50 years since these events unfolded, nor can I find news stories about that night. Much of it is indelibly stamped on my mind, but a lot is not. So bear with me, eh. Next week: The Hood and I.)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.