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Voices of Civil Rights

YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES

Darlene Lewis

New York

Standing in front of the 32nd Precinct at age 4 was not my idea of having a good time. That was probably the worst time in my life. It was 1964, and my mother and her sister took part in a march against the 32nd Precinct on West 135th St. between 7th and 8th avenues [in New York City]. You see, although many writers, such as James Baldwin, talked about the police brutality of my uncle Frank Stafford, the story still has not settled in my bones. My Uncle Frank was a pantyhose salesman who had just left a client. He had observed the police beating up on a young boy who was allegedly accused of stealing fruit. My uncle asked the police, "What did the young boy do?" and the police beat my uncle so bad that his eyeball was smashed. They then left him in the precinct for hours before he was sent to a hospital. The doctors were unable to save his eye, so he spent the rest of his days wearing a patch. I never forgot how the women felt and how they led a march in front of the 32nd Precinct. I could hear them protest, "Police brutality! Police brutality!" I remember holding a sign, pushing my brother in his stroller, and the Black Panthers and other civil rights activists screaming. Now, in 2013, we still hear stories of police brutality, and there are hundreds of victims all across America who are hoping that one day the community and the police will one day be able to communicate without tensions. Only time will tell.

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Nicholas Smith

La Grande, Ore.

In 1966, I was a white youth growing up in Eastern Oregon. In our town, there were only a few black families and they were, for the most part, integrated and well thought of, at a distance, for most of us. In the fall of that year, I was in the Army at Fort Polk, La., and had just finished Republic of Vietnam Advanced Individual Training, Infantry. While walking on the sidewalk one afternoon, I saw a sheriff's 4-WD rig hit a little black boy in a small intersection. There was no traffic light. The boy, about 10, was laying on his right side in the street, moaning and crying, holding his left leg bent, pants torn and bleeding moderately. His young black friend was standing away a little with the small crowd that gathered. Someone in the crowd said, "Man, that's too bad." And the deputy sheriff said, "Yeah, I tried to get both of them, but the other one was too fast for me." In a couple of minutes, two black men from the crowd helped the boy up and half-carried him away. I did and said nothing, partially from disbelief at the inequity of it, and partially in fear of getting in trouble. But I did empathize with the little boy and was ashamed at what happened, and could only imagine how much that deputy's words hurt that little kid. I have had remorse for the rest of my life that I didn't do something or say something. I have wondered about that little boy and how he turned out, and what kind of life he had as he grew up. Man, I wish I'd said and done something to help him.

A few months later, I was an officer candidate at Fort Benning, Ga., and a half dozen or so of us went into neighboring Columbus, Ga., to the taverns and nightclubs. One of us was black. So we went into this one bar, and the bartender said we couldn't come in with the black guy. I immediately asked why, and the bartender explained that the owner had a rule that they would serve no blacks. I said, "If he's good enough to serve in the Army and become an Army officer, then he's good enough to drink in this (expletive deleted) bar!" The bartender told us to get out or he would call the police. I told him that the police would take our side. Then the club owner came over and told us that it was just the way it was, and that he'd been a soldier and got a Purple Heart. I told him that any fool in combat could raise his butt and get it shot, a Purple Heart didn't mean much to us. He became irate and told us to get the hell out immediately. So we left and went to the next bar up the street. The bar owner heard us talking loudly about what had just happened and came over to me and said, "Man, you sure are lucky. That guy shot and killed a man last week for arguing with him." In the Army in those days, we quickly found that "in the fox hole, we all bleed red." We found that the color of our skin didn't matter; we were all in the Republic of Vietnam mess together, and we were all going to combat together.

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Civil Rights Voices: Share Your Story

VOices Of Civil Rights

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On Aug. 3, 2004, AARP set out on a 70-day bus tour, through 22 states, to gather the extraordinary stories of ordinary people who played a role, both big and small, in the civil rights movement. The effort resulted in a collection of thousands of personal stories, oral histories and photographs. Through the collaborative effort of AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and the Library of Congress, the collection was donated to the Library of Congress to create the Voices of Civil Rights exhibit. Housed at the American Folk Life Center of the Library of Congress, the exhibit documents key moments in the civil rights movement.

 

In honor of the upcoming 50th anniversaries of the assassination of Medgar Evers (6/12/63), the March on Washington (8/28/63) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (7/2/64), AARP revisited the vast collection of amazing civil rights stories housed within the Voices of Civil Rights exhibit. Of the thousands of eye-opening stories, we selected six poignant recollections to share with the public in a nationwide campaign.