Thursday, October 27, 2005

Rosa and Wilhelmina and Carrie

A tense, inter-racial public demonstration becomes heated when white youth form a counter-demonstration on Dec. 27, 1956.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

This week, the pearly gates are held open for Rosa Parks, and St. Peter announces that the front row has been reserved since 1955. That's when she used her NAACP training to stage a public protest. It worked, and worldwide attention was focussed on Montgomery and the gothic Deep South, cradle of the Confederacy — swarming with racial antipathy.

But in Florida, FAMU students Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Paterson did not have formalized NAACP training. They had not steeled themselves in the art of public demonstration, and they were not — in the white parlance of the day — "put up to it." Jakes and Paterson were just students on their way across Tallahassee using public transportation.

Let us remember Parks, but let us not forget Jakes and Paterson.

These two college students transformed black life in Tallahassee, and their simple act of defiance radicalized a generation of leaders. The business community, the professors at FAMU and the religious community were led by the Rev. C.K. Steele. He and King were old Morehouse men, and their paths would cross again upon the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In 1956, the thought of daughters suddenly on a bus next to a black man was too much. It created a hysteria in the Mind of the South, prompting a worried City Commission to create a plan of attack — outlawing the carpools used to transport boycotters. This was, of course, because of national security and promoting capitalism and keeping order. Law and order, folks.

And, sad to say, the plan that City Hall put together worked. They arrested Steele and the boycott ended. But after this simple act of defiance on the bus that day, the protest in Montgomery was grounded in the warm embrace of public sentiment. A movement was initiated. The Old World, in a sense, was left behind.

And so let us praise famous women, Rosa and Wilhelmina and Carrie.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Soft Bigotry

T.K. Wetherell peers over the shoulder of Beverly Burnsed at a 1985 leadership meeting in the Florida House of Representatives.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell is a victim of the soft bigotry of low expectations. When he was chosen as president of the university, folks were curious about his lack of academic abilities.

Hogwash, came the response from Wetherell supporters. Don't you want to raise money? Don't you want that new chiropractic school? What about the football team? How about a chemistry building?

Reservations about Wetherell's lack of gravity and seriousness were brushed aside by more modern sensibilities. In today's world, university presidents must raise money and make appearances. Those academic debates are best reserved for the Faculty Senate.

President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers has a similar flaw. The president assures us that she will never -- ever -- change her mind on anything, really, honest, she is qualified to shape American jurisprudence for the next generation.

That questionnaire? Come on, you don't expect her to actually write her opinions, do you? Get real. This is the modern world, and Supreme Court justices have well-qualified clerks.

Justice Miers, like President Wetherell, should not be taken to the woodshed for bad grammar or the crime of inelegance in the courts of elitists. They should be embraced as one of us, and our pledge of allegiance to one nation under God demands it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Justice in the Men's Room

G. Harrold Carswell votes in 1970.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

Is Harriet Miers qualified to be a member of the Supreme Court? The question of competence has not been raised in a Senate confirmation hearing for many years, but the strange case of G. Harrold Carswell is well worth remembering.

President Nixon appointed Carwell to the court on Jan. 19, 1970 to replace Justice Abe Fortas, a Lyndon Johnson crony who had to resign after a financial scandal involving a speaking fee. Interestingly, the nomination prompted a filibuster by Republicans and Dixiecrats -- a fact that was regularly ignored in the public debate earlier this year about history of judicial filibusters.

Nevertheless, Fortas resigned and Carswell was named. But Nixon had rough waters ahead.

It turned out that Carswell had a spotty record as a judge, and it wasn't difficult for Sen. Ted Kennedy to make the case that he was ill-suited for the Supreme Court. He had a 58 percent reversal rate and a history of supporting white supremacy. Carswell was a member of the Tallahassee Country Club in 1956 when the Tallahassee City Commission transferred it from public ownership to a private for-profit organization to prevent blacks from being able to use the facility. (The club is still private, but the NAACP has held meetings there.)

Author Glenda Rabby chronicled the issue in her book, "The Pain and the Promise," adding this: "The Supreme Court nomination of Carswell was derailed in 1970 in part because of the controversy over his membership in the private club."

During his tenure as Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Carswell was hostile to civil rights advocates and sympathetic to those who used violence and intimidation to prevent school desegregation. As a federal judge, Carswell ordered the city of Tallahassee to remove signs at the airport that were designed to enforce segregation in the restrooms. (Wouldn't it be funny if the FAMU waiting room at the Tallahassee Airport were renamed the Carswell Room?)

The Carswell nomination was rejected by the Senate on April 8, 1970 by 51 to 45, and it was all downhill from there. He lost a Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in 1972 and was arrested in 1976. It seems that Judge Carswell made an advance to an undercover police officer in a Tallahassee men's room.


Friday, September 02, 2005

Just to Surrender

The 1959 Tampa flood.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

The sadness and loss in New Orleans is heartbreaking. Even worse, the situation there is rapidly deteriorating. Gunfire and violence have erupted in the fetid swampland, a tragic situation rapidly spiraling out of control. It's an old tale, really. But Noah was not a Cajun.

As a literary metaphor, the flood has been a powerful force in the history of human imagination. Nowhere is it more starkly presented than William Faulkner's "If I Forget Thee Jerusalem," a book that included a story called "The Old Man."

Old Man River, the Yazoo, is the story's protagonist. He is a cruel character, hurling pain and mayhem. Certainly, Faulkner's conception of the river was prescient. He based his story on the flood of 1927, but its lessons speak to our present situation, even now, as a fire burns amid a rising tide of despair strangles New Orleans.

"Juxtaposed to nowhere and neighbored by nothing it stood, a clear steady pyre-like flame rigidly fleeing its own reflection, burning in the dusk above the watery desolation with a quality paradoxical, outrageous and bizarre," Faulkner wrote.

The book presents two stories, seemingly unrelated, in contrapuntal rhythm. "The Wild Palms" follows a woman bleeding to death after a botched abortion while "The Old Man" chronicles a convict who is struggling to save a pregnant woman from the rising floodwaters. When the levee breaks, the old man and the unborn embrace upon the scarred face of the Gulf Coast.

"Then he was comparatively screened, out of range, though not for long. That is (he didn't tell how nor where) there was a moment in which he paused, breathed for a second before running again, the course back to the skiff open for the time being though he could still hear the shouts behind him and now and then a shot, and he panting, sobbing, a long savage tear in the flesh of one hand, got when and how he did not know, and he wasting precious breath, speaking to no one now anymore than the scream of a dying rabbit is addressed to any mortal ear but rather an indictment of all breath and its folly and suffering, its infinite capacity for folly and pain, which seems to be its only immortality: 'All in the world I want is just to surrender.' "

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Beheading for Homeland Security

Osceola's grave at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

The names and images tossed around in the recent debate about using the Seminoles as a mascot has been notably bereft of context. The Seminoles were -- and are -- real people. Osceola was all too real, but his memory has become a Disney character. He has been stripped of significance and mounted atop a public relations machine that bows to worship the twin gods of money and football.

It's a shame, really, because the story of Osceola has a shocking significance to our modern world.

The man whose image FSU football fans have wildly defended for years was -- in the eyes of the United States federal government -- a terrorist. After treaty negotiations between the government and the Seminoles broke down in 1835, Osceola ambushed the Army general in charge of the delegation and scalped him.

Now, when FSU fans chant "scalp 'em," does anybody remember poor old Wiley Thompson, the unfortunate general whom Osceola personally scalped?

After scalping the general, Osceola went on the warpath -- against the United States! Remember that this is a group that had been defeated in the First Seminole War, so what we are talking about here is a rebel insurgency much like the one now burning in Iraq. Zarqawi is now following in Osceola's footsteps.

Consider, for a moment, FSU using the "Fighting Isamists" as a mascot. A strapping young college boy could play dress up, pretending to behead the mascot of a rival team. Sure people would complain, but the FSU boosters could bribe their way out of meaningful opposition. In the end, nobody would remember Zarqawi anyway. So who would care?

This historic parallels between the Seminole's guerilla warfare against the United States Army and the Iraqi insurgency's guerilla warfare against the United States are endlessly revealing: the wheels of American empire never stop spinning. They will steamroll anything in their path, eventually obliterating everything -- even the memory of their existence.

Here we are in 2005, fighting a small band of insurgents under the hot sun of the Middle East and nobody remembers this Seminole chief using a small band of 4,000 men using hit-and-run tactics successfully against 200,000 United States Army troops in the swamps of central Florida. But Osceola's tale has a bizarre twist ending: the United States federal government beheaded him.

After being arrested during treaty negotiations -- the ultimate diplomatic sin -- Osceola was imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine. The deceit prompted an outcry, and so the Seminole chief was moved to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina.

In 1838, less than three months after violating diplomatic protocol to detain him, the federal government beheaded Osceola.

Now, he has become a cartoon. A plush toy to be manipulated and cheered. A man without geography or significance, buoyed by the endless chanting of football fans.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Radio Daze

George Thurston, amateur radio operator.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

Gentle reader, the Conquistador has many faults to admit. If you have looked at the dates attached to these epistles, you will undoubtedly realize the unconscionable gap in recent posts. It's become a fault that has grown into a seismic shift.

In fact, it's been an eternity.

The Conquistador could explain his absence. He could tell you about the momentous events that necessitated the temporary delay, the mind-boggling journeys, the new worlds of preoccupation that have engulfed the old, grizzled Spaniard.

But why?

The truth is that it took a radio, that old squawkbox of fizzle, to lure the reticent Conquistador out of his stupor. Specifically, WFSU radio host Bobby Link. Truth in advertising: I knew Link when he was a little sprout at WVFS, the voice of Florida State University.

Back then, the concept of "experimental college radio" was more a challenge than anything else. The airwaves were full of prattle, punctuated by an important thought or two. And then, it was back to chit chat.

Link was, even then, a master. He had all the natural ability that the Conquistador did not. That is why he is on WFSU while I have this mere blog. Nevertheless, a recent call from radio man Link may have ironically revived this blog.

He called to ask a question, that recording device spinning away. And then, it was like magic, the Conquistador again set his sights upon conquest. And, well, here we are.

So, thank you, Mr. Link. In the fullness of time, you name will be included with the greats, such as the late George Thurston -- a man who fought alongside civil rights workers as an advocate journalist, risking his life for what he knew was right.

The Conquistador will never forget Thurston. And he can never thank Link enough.

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Day for Possum

A very unhappy possum.
(Florida Photographic Collection)

Campaigning in Florida is a multi-faceted experience, and you get out of it what you put into it. If you're a corporate executive, like Gov. Bush, campaigning will include lots of appearances with Realtors and developers. If, on the other hand, you are interested in attracting the great unwashed masses, then Florida has a lot to offer.

There's the Strawberry Festival, Mule Days and the Watermelon Festival. But the shining jewel in the crown of oddball Sunshine State festivities is Possum Day, held every August in Wausau.

Here is where the brave marsupials are separated from the human chaff. Possum Day celebrates that unlikely creature who helped the residents of Wausau live through the dark days of the Depression, the critters who fed residents and nurtured worried children, the temporal and unimaginable link between the past and the future.

Now, of course, the idea of actually eating a possum in unthinkable. You can buy "possum" during the festival, but (secrets are revealed on this blog!) it's really just potted meat. At the Possum Palace, that redneck public sphere created for the festival, a Possum Queen is inaugurated and an auction is held. This the extent of the holiday.

The act of auctioning the possum is a clever trick by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, which is the beneficiary of the artifice. These are the cigar-chomping, back-room folks (all Masons) who take in money from this event are shameless, and all statewide candidates are expected to spend money at the auction.

The Conquistador can just imagine what Lawton Chiles' reaction was to this craziness. He probably wanted to shoot off his potato gun! In any event, Possum Day is worth catching. It's much more fun during an election year, when the campaigns will be in full blossom.

Maybe next year. In Washington County, there's always next year. I supposed that's the attraction to Possum Day.

Imagine Charlie Crist buying the stuffed possum, holding the carcass before a throng of sicophgants. Or Tom Gallagher, with that manly grin, smiling broadly at the prospect of winning rural Florida with a cheap payoff to the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. Imagine!

The idea of Scott Maddox holding a possum for the cameras is too much. Please, Boy Mayor, travel to Wausau next year. Washington County needs you!