Munn Park Memories

Civil War Confederate Monuments, Uncategorized

Munn Park Monument

I grew up in a racially divided Lakeland, FL in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s of my childhood, racial division, hate, and the fear of change, were daily topics of adult conversation. That chatter often spilling over to ears of children denounced the big, bad government and colored people who “didn’t know their place.”

In the town square known as Munn Park, the 26 feet tall marble monument to the Confederacy looked defiantly over the park’s separate water fountains (one with a “Whites Only” sign). Separate restrooms for whites and blacks next to the park served as a constant reminder that old fears, hates and prejudices were alive in this town. And, sad to say, still are today. Even after that big bad government got rid of the separate water fountains and restrooms, this cold symbol of treason against our United States (the country my dad served in WWII when he helped defeat the Nazis) still stands on public property.

Oh yes, it was a glorious day for the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Third Brigade of the Confederate Veterans who gathered in the park that June 3, 1910. They celebrated the dedication of the monument by listening to a speech by then Florida Attorney-General, Park Trammel. The event took place, not coincidentally, on the birthday of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

But, today, do we not know better? Have we learned nothing from our history? I remember well the things that I heard and witnessed growing up in Lakeland, FL.

I remember the sit-in at the drugstore a few miles from Munn Park on Memorial Blvd. where blacks were not allowed service at the counter where burgers, shakes, etc., were served. And there was a night when black people protesting segregation at the Polk Theater, just a couple of blocks from Munn Park, with its symbol of segregation and disrespect to black citizens, were viciously attacked. I was standing across the street with other onlookers watching the protest when I saw it happen. I felt sickened at the noticeable lack of police response.

A restaurant located on Florida Ave. just a short distance north of the Polk Theater, Howell’s Lunch and Bakery, owned by my uncle, was the scene of a protest. Three black women dared to enter a white owned restaurant in Lakeland, FL to buy lunches. I was there too, and I watched as they were thrown out.

I remember well the muddy/dusty roads of the predominantly black residential area behind my uncle’s small business and extending north through those numbered streets. That area, known in those days as Lakeland’s Nigger Town, had no paved streets because the city refused to pave them. Those roads were ignored until the Civil Rights Movement began to force change and the tax paying black citizens- who worked and who served in our military- got paved streets.

My uncle, the same one who refused to serve black people in his restaurant, would hand me a cardboard box during the summers and send me down those dusty/muddy roads to sell donuts, brownies and other pastries. Even as a boy, I could hear children ahead of me shouting, “White man coming.”

As I passed the humble homes on those dirt roads, I encountered wonderful people who gave me ice water, tea and sometimes lemonade, and bought my offerings.
Those people — fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers – treated me with kindness and generosity. They all helped plant seeds of empathy and a spirit of human decency in the heart and mind of the man who would one day write this essay.

Honoring the Confederacy and its participants is to honor treason. Allowing this monument to stand any longer is a disgrace. By allowing it to stand, you are paying homage to the worst institution in human history…slavery. How hypocritical to fly the American flag in the same park!

Preserving our country’s history so that we might learn from it is what books and museums are for. Instead of an idol to a dead institution let us honor and give reverence to our patriots and their moral principles. Take down this shameful false idol. Replace it with a memorial to those brave individuals, like my dad, who served the United States of America…our veterans. Honor them.

To those who will make the decision: if you fail to do the right thing now, and do not remove the Confederate Memorial from Munn Park, your lack of courage will haunt you through all the years ahead.

 

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Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman

Uncategorized
Harper

Author, Harper Lee

I suppose there is a depth of understanding of the writer, Harper Lee, which can only come from being a true southerner: one who grew up observing the civil rights struggle of the Deep South. And as the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Daniel Ruth points out, it is a myth that Florida is not part of that Deep South culture as much as Alabama, Mississippi or anywhere along tobacco road. I grew up in Lakeland, FL., and let me assure you that all the racism in the mythical Maycomb, all the hypocrisy and apartheid were very much a part of that town’s culture during my childhood journey there.

Her writing genuinely captures that culture of tradition, fear and ignorance: a South so intricately tied to the old English aristocracy and unwilling to let go. And there were those, even amongst the elite, who like Jeanne Louis in the book, are so far ahead of their time in acceptance and support of needed change that they were like time travelers who went backward and got caught in the past. When you consider that Lee wrote both  her novels in the 1950’s, it is clear that she was one of those who must have felt so caught between the culture of her childhood and the truth: that culture of oppression was wrong and had to change.

I have read and listened to the nonsense about her destruction of the myth: the perfect male role modal. I am most grateful to Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird: She responded to the criticism of the book’s portrayal of Atticus as a racist by pointing to the fact that “Mockingbird” is Scout’s view of her father while in her childhood, and the new novel is her adult perception and understanding: what do you know, Atticus Finch is a flawed human after all…just like the rest of us. Let’s get over it.

In his insightful essay on the subject titled “What Harper Lee Got Right” another great Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Gilbert King — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America” – points out that the “elephant in the room” in Go Set a Watchman is Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers who successfully argued the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. They were upsetting the likes of Atticus Finch and other advocates of the status quo vs. government involvement in change. So the myth of a great white savior for black Americans is exposed.

Consider this from Gilbert King’s essay:

In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee seems to be on the verge of  recognizing the contributions not of white saviors like the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, but of men like Thurgood Marshall, who often picked up where the Atticus Finches of America failed in court, saving the lives of innocent men. Jean Louise opines to her father that the South should have tried to work with blacks instead of running from the Brown decision and ultimately resenting the government. “I think we deserve everything we’ve gotten from the NAACP and more,” she tells him.

 Still, there have been “white saviors” who deserve credit and gratitude for their courage: such as Justice Hugo Black and Justice Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court. They wrote compelling opinions that helped change America for the better. And there were many others. But we have often failed to recognize and adequately document the work of those black Americans who stood so strong against the odds. Consider this additional excerpt from Gilbert King’s observations:

Living, breathing men like Hugo Black and Robert Jackson recognized that Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers and advocates were risking their lives in pursuit of constitutional equality. They also recognized that as justices on the nation’s highest court, there was no higher duty than to identify and act on the injustices that came before them.

In the heat of the Brown battle, a fatigued Marshall once remarked to an associate, “sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.”

The battle was so daunting, Marshall needed all the white saviors he could find.

Thus, Mr. King pays tribute to both the white and black Americans who took us from the times described so accurately in “Watchman.” And Harper’s books are, in part, a study­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ of those so conflicted by tradition and truth: from the mob brought down by a tomboy called Scout, to a deeply troubled Jean Louis.

 Her writing drips with the voice of the South I grew up in. I hear it and feel it on every page. The symbolisms are moving and paint a picture of change and its challenges of conscience: she stands as the watchman in the balcony of the courtroom where she once observed the courage of her father; now seeing the truth of a mob mentality that even he is caught up in. She recalls sitting on the water tower looking down on Maycomb as a child and again watching over a hamlet full of southern charm and heartless hate and fear.

The book fails in some places; especially by today’s standards: such as when her uncle attacks Jean Louis by hitting her in the mouth and then suddenly returns from brute to the wise old sage who counsels her on how love and acceptance do not deprive one of individuality. But I’m being picky; it is a great read. It is not worthy as a sequel to “Mockingbird.” However, all comparisons are odious.

P.S. As an additional homage to the book, I’ve tried to overuse the colon just as she did. :>)