By Jerry Waxman
Going to an event such as the rally for Trayvon Martin in Sanford’s waterfront Ft. Mellon Park can be fun, educational, inspiring as well as painful. In order to operate the video camera I needed to be as up front as possible. I left home early thinking that I had to be there prior to 6:00 PM to even have a chance at a good position. I arrived well on time; the trouble is that so did thousands of other people. So, I parked what seemed to be about a mile away as there was nothing close. Even that far away there were hordes of people coming from all directions filtering into the little side street where I was. Foot traffic was wending its way down to the main drag of Downtown Sanford. There was no bucking it; I was swept away, cameras, tripod and bags in hand.
The crowd determined where we went. Eventually we landed on Sanford’s main drag, a quaint brick paved street with small town Main Street kind of buildings housing small merchants and eateries that police had warned to close early in case there was “trouble.” Along the way I met two gentlemen who told me of their civil rights struggles in the 50’s and 60’s. They were down from New York for the event. They told me that Dick Gregory was down with the reverend Al. We were discussing Gregory’s multi-faceted career while the crowd kept moving me and stepping on my feet. Once inside the park it was no better. A solid wall of people hid the waterfront from view. You could not see the lake. All of the network and cable news uplink trucks were on the lakefront side of the park. Getting to them was an ordeal and once I did there was no view of the stage. Now I had to buck the crowd to get to the press area in front of the stage. More shoving, pushing, tripping and excuse me’s than I care to count. Lots of people brought chairs which made the entire place an obstacle course. At 6:15 it’s still light out so at least there’s some reaction time to stop and change direction.
Finally, I arrived at the press area, an hour before the event is to start and there is absolutely no room to set up my video cam. Two guys from Fox 35 graciously gave me a foothold where I could set up the tripod. There was no place to go without swimming through a sea of people so basically I had to stand in place, shifting my weight from time to time just to relax one leg or the other. People were constantly shoving and bumping into the camera crews and stepping on our feet in their clamor to be part of the event.
The platform stage was lined with personalities both local and national. Not everyone was able to speak because of time limitations. Left out of speaking time were comedian Dick Gregory, State rep. Geraldine Thompson, local civil rights attorney Shayan Elahi who is working with the Florida Civil Rights Assoc. and several others. Those who did speak were both passionate and eloquent. The first official speaker was the Rev. Rucker of First Shiloh Baptist Church who called for justice as well as US Rep. for District 3 Corrine Brown. Maria Jones of the Florida legislative Delegation spoke about reversing the Stand Your Ground law. A visibly upset Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett spoke next hesitantly and in a quavering voice. Amid shouts of “Fire the City Manager” he was hardly audible. The crowd grew hostile and booed him off the stage. The next speaker, the Rev. Paul Wright had his speech interrupted by Congresswoman Brown who recalled the mayor to the stage and explained how cooperative he had been and that he did not deserve the poor treatment he received. That did calm things down a bit. The Rev. Valerie Houston offered more prayer. The Rev. Alan Brumbach of the Central Florida Baptist Church offered the final prayer for the evening.
The preliminaries now over, the heavy hitters took the stage. All at once we learned that Al Sharpton’s mother had passed away earlier in the day yet he was determined to be in Sanford to support Trayvon’s parents and see that justice was done. We also learned that Florida Governor Rick Scott just then had replaced Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger with a special prosecutor from Jacksonville, Angela B. Corey. The Corey appointment along with the already known news that Police Chief Lee had stepped down brought roars of approval from the crowd. Attorney Ben Crump who has been diligently pursuing justice for Trayvon spoke first and then introduced Al Sharpton who whipped up the crowd as no other person can. Sharpton immediately took command and didn’t let go. He cautioned the crowd not to get violent because that is “what the other side wants us to do.” Before introducing Trayvon’s parents he spoke about his mother’s death and why he felt it was necessary to be in Sanford.
Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, tears in her eyes thanked everyone for their prayers and support. Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, spoke next and pledged to keep on until justice is served. Sharpton then asked everyone to dig deep and come up with money for the family. Sharpton himself donated $2500.00 and a few big contributors donated more. In all within a space of six minutes over $50,000.00 was raised. Other speakers included radio personality Michal Baisdel, US Congressman US Congressman Al Green and Martin Luther King. Judge Craig Mathis spoke next followed by radio personalities Joe Madison and Mark Thompson
How many (ethnicities deleted) does it take to screw in a light bulb?
During the prayers and speeches I kept evoking images of times past and the speakers kept driving their points home. In no particular order flashing through my mind I saw Billie Holiday’s version of Strange Fruit, the murder in 1955 of Emmet Till, the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the murder of Matthew Sheppard, 2007’s “self-defense” shooting of Diego Ortiz and Hernando Torres by Joe Horn, the senseless murder of Sean Bell on his wedding day and scores of other incidents. Hate and bigotry still exist in large quantities; they’ve just taken on the ability to become covert instead of out in the open. Back in the 50’s, and 60’s ethnic jokes (along with knock-knock jokes) were all the rage and no ethnicity was immune including WASPS. Here’s a less offensive example: A Catholic priest was driving along and rear ended a Jewish rabbi (dressed in stereotypical garb). The priest admitted it was his fault, however when the Irish cop arrived at the scene his first question (in brogue of course) was “And how fast was he goin’ when he backed into ya Father?” Sick? You bet. Yet, every ethnicity told these jokes amongst their own groups about all the others and we all laughed because it reinforced our impressions of the “other.” The sickest of these jokes was the punch line spoken by an Alabama sheriff at the murder scene of an African American who had been burnt, stabbed, shot, hung, dipped in acid, then shot again. “In fact, it’s the worst case of suicide I’ve ever seen.”
“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”
Oscar Hammerstein II was much more than a Great American Songbook lyricist. He was an extremely liberal social critic who had a very simple and direct way with words, dating back to his collaboration with Jerome Kern in Edna Ferber’s Showboat, one of the greatest scores in musical theater. In his paean to the civil rights struggle, Old Man River, he limns the plight of African Americans and their struggles. The opening line of the song, “Niggers all work on the Mississippi,” was suppressed for years because theater producers felt it was too dangerous. The line was changed to “Here we all work on the Mississippi” until the London production in 1991. The much maligned Paul Robeson, most identified with the song, was not in the original production because of scheduling difficulties. He did open the show in London in 1928 and it ran for 350 performances. In 1936 he recreated the role of Joe in the movie adaptation. Robeson is a case study in bigotry and hate by the establishment and there are several biographies available for you to read about him. Hammerstein didn’t stop there. Somewhere in every show with Richard Rodgers he injected his social criticism. The highlight of his work was the song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” which spells out in ¾ time exactly how hate and bigotry are passed down from generation to generation.
Within my lifetime I’ve seen lots of changes for the better. Since the Reagan Era I’ve seen lots of efforts to chip away at those changes. It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan chose to give his post 1980 Republican Convention kickoff speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the vicinity where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally lynched by the KKK and then their bodies hidden. His speech was thinly veiled code using the term States Rights, continuing Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Today, with organizations like ALEC actually writing laws that our legislators enact you can bet that the “Shoot First” law, sponsored by ALEC and the NRA weren’t aimed at ‘white folks’. I hope that the Trayvon Martin case starts to unravel this thin veil of racial hatred and official government corruption in Central Florida, not just Sanford and expose it for what it is. I look at the pictures of this beautiful young man and I can’t restrain myself. I have this connection with Tracy and Sybrina and I know their pain, first hand. We buried a beautiful child in 1989 and the pain doesn’t go away. It subsides somewhat and you find the strength to go on, but you’re never the same.
Someday, when Florida legislators wake up and properly fund education and leave education to real educators we might actually find our way out of this miasma.
Back to Reality
My getting out of Ft. Mellon Park proved to be more difficult than getting in. The crowd by that time had swelled to immense proportions. The Seminole Sheriff’s office estimate of 8,000-10,000 was way too low. If you’ve ever been to a pro football or pro baseball game in the northeast you get a feel for the crowds. MSNBC’s estimate of 30,000 is much more accurate. Undoing the tripod and packing up was an ordeal, with people constantly and unintentionally bumping into you. Finally, when I was walking with the crowd it was dark and you couldn’t see the chairs that you tripped over and impeded your progress. Once out of the park, the crowd impelled you to go in its direction. I left the main drag to go onto the side street where I thought I had parked. After about a mile and a half of walking I realized that I was lost. Finally, with the help of a sheriff’s deputy and a Sanford motorcycle cop the car was found. Another mile of walking and I finally reached the car. So, was the experience worth the difficulties? My feet will disagree with me but I’m going to overrule them and say yes.