The setting: Fort Meade, Fla., 34 years before Trayvon Martin will be shot dead by George Zimmerman in Sanford, 99 miles northeast of this small Central Florida city that briefly made headlines in the late 1970s.
Imagine a young reporter, New York-born and educated in Washington during Watergate, covering three sleepy Southern towns with a way of life that hasn’t changed since air conditioning arrived, and where the hottest story in town is a possible hike in the garbage fees. Stop the presses.
Then one day a group arrives from D.C., the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. A jagged fault line suddenly splits the status quo. Have Fort Meade and other small Southern towns spent their federal funds equitably, or have they routinely short-changed black communities?
President Obama’s remarks following Zimmerman’s acquittal on July 13 got me thinking about Fort Meade, the stories I wrote during that stretch of my career, and whether things have changed.
Obama said the African American community looks at the Zimmerman verdict “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
He included himself when he spoke about African American men being followed when shopping in department stores. He talked about racial profiling, and “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.”
He acknowledged that young black men are “disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system” as both victims and perpetrators. Frustration enters, he said, when stats are cited without context. “The violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country,” he said, “is born out of a very violent past in this country.”
In one sense, the discrimination suits filed against towns like Fort Meade in the late 1970s are historical footnotes in the saga of American race relations. There was angry muttering, but no violence. In Fort Meade’s case, an out of court settlement ended the matter.
In another sense, it was a small step forward, a needed course correction that perhaps paved the way for more significant steps to come.
Obama is right when he says problems remain, but that “each successive generation seems to be making progress.”
It’s also true that we do not live in a “post racial society,” as the president put it, or that the solution is “some grand, new federal program.” The more likely answer will spring from honest conversations, self-examination and time.
Time broadens our perspective.
If it doesn’t, we stopped learning somewhere along the way. Caught in the crossfire between the attorneys and city officials 34 years ago, I learned that objectivity didn’t exist, that the best I could do as a journalist was to be fair to both sides.
I also discovered the importance of context. Civil rights attorneys from Washington have different sensibilities than the descendants of settlers who fought the Seminole Indians to claim Fort Meade in the 1850’s. The agreement that brought widespread improvements to the city’s black communities seemed impossible at first. Eventually, through negotiation, self-interest, and maybe a little more getting to know one another, they reached an uneasy truce, and the story stopped making headlines.
CNN Timeline / Martin case: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts
Fort Meade history: http://www.fortmeadechamber.com/default.cfm?page=History