By GENE E. HERRICK
A Journalist’s Memory Book
From the beginning of time, mankind has had its differences with people, and groups, who didn’t believe the way they did. Gentile against Jew; Arabian against Jew; Confucius against Buddhism, white man against all other races, and, few peoples of the world liking the Black race.
As a white boy, born and raised in basically white Ohio, I grew up sharing life with Black children and adults. The first was with a Black girl in fourth grade. At recess, she gave me an apple, and said, “Here Gene, hold this apple and at the same time hold your tongue, and say, I have a big red apple.” I was embarrassed, but we all laughed. She was great. Another time in middle school, we had a pickup basketball game. It was race mixed. I was very small for my age, but I would reach between the legs on one of the Black children and knock the ball free. We laughed. Later, I got knocked down, the Black player reached down, picked me up, swatted me on the rear, and we continued the game. I had no problems with Black people, up North, or in Dixie.
However, has civilization really changed? I think not.
Today we have the Black people of this country, and others, rising up to declare their equality amongst mankind. There have been many sparkplugs of energy to change this, but the battle to renew the effort has re-sparked with the recent police strangling death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His death sparked huge demonstrations, by many races, in many cities across the country.
However, this was not the first time that Black people have struggled for equality with their fellowman. For this country, and according to historians, it started in 1619 with the forced importation of Black people from Angola, Africa. It is reported, “Some 20 Negroes landed art Port Comfort in the English settlement that would become Virginia.” The rest of the history is pretty well known. Most southern states welcomed the Blacks as slaves, and treated them, in most cases, less than human. History has reported on their slave treatment as horrible. Killing a Black slave was not a crime — I know. I worked in the South in the early and middle 1950s as an Associated Press photographer, I covered many racially related stories in Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Alabama. Some of my experiences included covering all-white college football. I covered the murder trial of Emmitt Till (1955) in Mississippi, where two white men reportedly killed a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago. Surprisingly, two white men were arrested and tried for the murder. However, they were not convicted — no one expected them to be. Black people in the south were seldom referred to people of color as Black. The “N” word was generally used by uneducated white people, while the cultured society usually used the word “Colored.”
I had two white men in Mississippi tell me that the Black people were ignorant, because their skulls were much thicker than the white man’s. Thus, Black people were not worthy of being treated as humans. Many times I have been in the cotton fields taking pictures of the beaten-down black people chopping cotton and later picking cotton. Temperatures were high, and the sun was bright. It was hot. They got paid by the pound of cotton picked. Not much for working from sun up to sun down.
Shortly after I arrived in the South, I quickly realized the inequality between Black and white people. I found a quiet spot, closed my eyes, and visualized that I was a Black slave, living in squander, and daily treated like an animal. I visualized for some time how they felt, how they survived the humiliation and horrible treatment by their slave masters. After a while, I changed my visionary to being a white person among the slaves. This exercise was invaluable to me in understanding what I was dealing with.
In 1956, I covered Autherine Lucy, a Black young woman, being kicked out of the University of Alabama. From there, I went to Montgomery, Alabama to cover a Black woman, Rosa Parks, being removed from a city bus. I took the picture of her being fingerprinted in jail. At the same time, a young Black preacher had arrived in town. After responding to the Rosa Parks story, this young man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to the occasion and became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the first real national movement for the rights of Black people everywhere in America, and around the world. I took the picture of King being kissed on the cheek by his wife, Coretta. King later received the Nobel Peace Prize. Covering King was a once in a lifetime experience. One could tell he was a coming leader, and had the voice to go with it. He traveled extensively urging the world to love each other, regardless of color, religion and politics.
The country did not treat King well. He had many scares, and in 1968 was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I covered that story as well.
In connection with the killing of George Floyd recently, it is often asked, “I wonder what Dr. King would do and say if her were still alive?” Based on my many experiences with King, I have written that I feel King would have gone to Minneapolis as fast as he could. He would, in my opinion, taken to the streets in support of the mass demonstrations. I think he would have gone to the various officials and gathered them together in search of solutions to myriad of peoples concerning race and equality. The battle for equality rather drifted into the background after King’s assassination, but with the advent of Floyd’s seemingly uncalled for death, I truly believe King would have picked up the mantle, and continue to lead the nation, and the world, into the dream of mankind — peace, love, understanding and acceptance of all mankind for each other.
However, politics in this country doesn’t seem to be on the same page. Do Black lives matter?
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!