Fifty years after civil rights milestone, divisions — and unity — arise in unexpected places
by Tim Lockette and Daniel Gaddy
Star Staff
Sep 15, 2013 | 6527 views |  0 comments | 164 164 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pictured in this Anniston Star file photo, the Carnegie Library in Anniston, which two black ministers attempted to integrate 50 years ago today.
Pictured in this Anniston Star file photo, the Carnegie Library in Anniston, which two black ministers attempted to integrate 50 years ago today.
In this Anniston Star file photo, Dr. N. Q. Reynolds stands beside a collage of images of him and others during the civil rights movement era.
In this Anniston Star file photo, Dr. N. Q. Reynolds stands beside a collage of images of him and others during the civil rights movement era.
Charles Garrett reads the paper inside Liles Memorial library in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Charles Garrett reads the paper inside Liles Memorial library in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Fifty years ago, Shajuan Blake's Tuesday afternoon would have made national headlines.

An Oxford resident, Blake spent the afternoon at the Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County, where she could surf the Web while keeping an eye on her 3-year-old son, Jeremiah Davis.

"Everybody's so friendly here," she said.

It wasn't always so friendly, though. Fifty years ago today, two black ministers were beaten and shot at by a white mob for trying to enter the library, then known as the Carnegie Library, which was on the site of the current library on 10th Street. One of those ministers, the Rev. Nimrod Q. Reynolds, lay in the hospital the next day as others returned, under close watch by police, and checked out books.

The integration of the library, and the beating Reynolds took for it, were watershed events in Anniston's civil rights history. Two years earlier, white segregationists had beaten and nearly burned to death a group of Freedom Riders traveling through the city to test Supreme Court rulings integrating buses. By 1963, a bi-racial committee — of which Reynolds was a member — was methodically pushing back barriers to integration, one at a time.

A half-century later, things are breathtakingly different and yet strangely the same. A black man is president of the United States; exit polls showed only 15 percent of white Alabamians voting for him. The courts monitor Anniston's schools to ensure they're not segregated; in this half-black, half-white city, nearly all students in public schools are African-American. It's illegal to deny services or employment to citizens based on the color of their skin; and yet black people in Alabama die sooner, have lower income and wealth, and are less likely to have health insurance than their white counterparts.

Is the city truly integrated? As part of an occasional series on race in Anniston, The Star asked local residents, community leaders and experts on race relations to comment on what integration means, how far it's come here, and what remains to be done.

A mixed bag

Across the South, racial integration of major institutions since the civil rights movement has been uneven, said Susan Glisson, executive director of the Mississippi-based William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

“I would argue that the workplace is probably the most integrated institution across the South,” Glisson said. “And 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour.”

It’s a phenomenon most people recognize, but rarely discuss. Where law bans discrimination, as in the workplace, the races meet. Where people choose their own affiliation — churches or private clubs — they often segregate by choice.

In schools, once the hardest-fought battleground of the civil rights movement, integration has been a mixed bag. Shortly after court-ordered desegregation, Glisson said, rural and small-town districts were among the most integrated schools in the country. Over the years, though, white families have often left largely-black school districts, creating counties where city schools are mostly black and county schools are mostly white.

“There’s been a resegregation that has reflected residential resegregation,” she said.

That’s true in Anniston. Both Anniston and Calhoun County’s school systems are monitored by federal courts under Lee v. Macon, the court decision that bans segregation within each school system. Yet more than 90 percent of the children in the Anniston school system are black. In the largely white neighborhoods on the east side of town, census numbers show, roughly half of children younger than 18 are in private schools.

Asked whether the area’s schools are truly integrated, Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier chooses her words carefully.

“There’s still a need for Lee v. Macon,” she said.

Integration in schools is more than just a matter of principle, Frazier said. When kids from different cultures and backgrounds exchange ideas, she said, they learn more.

"It's always best, or optimal, to have a blend of students from different backgrounds," Frazier said.

Anniston City Councilman David Reddick believes the numbers in Anniston just don’t add up. Reddick, who is also head of the local chapter of the NAACP, said some Anniston parents are lying about their addresses to get their children into neighboring school systems. It’s the only explanation, he said, for the decline in Anniston’s enrollment numbers when the city has roughly the same population of under-18 residents as neighboring Oxford.

“Some people are actively resisting integration,” Reddick said.

East side, west side

In 2013, there are few neighborhoods in Anniston that are 100 percent black or 100 percent white. The bright line between the white east side and the black west side is hazier, with some downtown neighborhoods serving as home to mixed populations. Still, census numbers show that Golden Springs is more than 70 percent white, while the neighborhoods west of downtown are more than 70 percent black. Median incomes in eastern neighborhoods range between $36,000 and $56,000 per year. In west side neighborhoods, median incomes range between $11,000 and $26,000.

And outside the city limits lie mostly-white rural communities whose population has mushroomed in recent decades while Anniston’s population has declined.

Everett King, of ERA King Real Estate, says he’s never steered a family away from a neighborhood because of race. It’s not allowed by law, he said. As recently as 10 years ago, he’d get occasional calls from white residents upset with him for selling to people of color.

“It was shocking,” he said. “People you know, saying things you know they ought not to be saying.”

These days, he said, nobody talks about race when buying or selling a house. But neighborhoods are even pickier about what King calls “socioeconomic class.”

“A doctor doesn’t want to live next to a girl that works at the window at McDonald’s,” he said. “What would they talk about?”

Everett said that if a buyer or seller mentions the race of the neighborhood they’d like to buy in, or the person they’d like to sell to, he won’t work with them. But what if someone says they want to live in a diverse neighborhood?

“I’ve never had anybody ask for that,” he said.

Uncomfortable topic

For residents of Anniston and the surrounding towns, the are-we-integrated question is still an uncomfortable one. A number of white residents, selected at random in locations around town, refused to discuss the issue at all. Some said race was no longer an issue.

As he and his mother finished their meal at Waffle House in Anniston, 53-year-old Bobby Nelson Jr., who is white, said he thinks the deluge of media coverage surrounding the 50th anniversary of major civil rights movement milestones is making matters worse.

“That was 50 years ago,” he said. “How are people going to forget if they keep bringing it up?”

Things are different when people speak on condition of anonymity. In a poll conducted two years ago by the organization GETT Moving East Alabama, three-quarters of Anniston residents described the city as “racially divided,” and 64 percent of white Annistonians and 81 percent of the city’s black residents identified race relations as a priority for the city.

Of the African-Americans who spoke to The Star, all acknowledged that the city was more integrated than it was 50 years ago. But many said they didn’t feel fully included here.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t close to my family,” said Ivory Holliday, who was shopping on Noble Street with her three daughters one afternoon earlier this month. “It really isn’t truly integrated.”

Holliday, who is black, grew up in the area, and left for Stockton, Calif., in early adulthood. Holliday said there was a different feel in Stockton that’s often hard to describe. Living now in Munford, she said the area’s rigid lines between black and white are stifling.

“It’s not a good cultural environment for my kids,” she said.

Sharon Servant, who has lived in the area for 16 years, said she’s seen slow improvement.

“There’s still racism,” said Servant, who is black. “It’s better than it used to be.”

Servant said she was most concerned with racial inequities in the justice system. Some people go to prison for long periods for drug crimes; others manage to get light sentences even for sex crimes. Race is a factor in that, she said.

For some white residents, diversity is a complex, unsettled topic. Shaun Bowen, a white Anniston resident, said he’s proud to live at the north end of Noble Street, in a neighborhood with both white and black residents. Yet he moved here from Tampa, Fla., in part because he wanted to be around people who speak English.

Bowen, 55, said he’s tired of hearing about 50th anniversaries of civil rights milestones.

“MLK had a dream,” he said. “We all have a dream. He’s not the only one.”

Even so, Bowen, a history buff, is upset that the city didn’t find a more prominent location for murals depicting the buses that brought the Freedom Riders to the city in the early 1960s.

“They put it in an alleyway,” he said. “This is our history. Put it where people can see it.”

Most of the people who spoke to The Star didn’t know the story of the integration of Anniston’s public library.

There’s no historic marker for the event, and the site is not on the Spirit of Anniston’s civil rights trail or the Alabama Civil Rights Trail.

According to Spirit of Anniston executive director Dianna Michaels, officials had hoped to install a plaque commemorating the integration of the library before the 50th anniversary, but they still need to work out details concerning the funding, wording and design of the marker.

“It’s just a matter of doing it right, with quality,” she said.

Once a plaque is installed, the site will be added to the Spirit of Anniston trail, she said.

For many, the reaction the two ministers experienced in 1963 is unimaginable.

“What could be so onerous about letting a black man read a book in the library?” asked Charles Doster, a white member of the biracial committee that helped organize the integration of the library, during a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the event. “If there is any place where integration was of little consequence it was in a public library, including that of Anniston, Alabama.”

No one contacted by The Star for this story knew of any plans to mark the 50th anniversary.

As 33-year-old Ortiz Burton looked around the Anniston library earlier this month, he said he knows about Reynolds and the other minister, Rev. Bob McClain, and what they went through to check out a book.

Burton, who is black, said he doesn’t think he could do what they and other civil rights groups did.

“They had a lot of patience,” he said.

He said that growing up in the early 1990s, he learned violence must be met with violence.

Divided pews

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who first noted that 11 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week. He also referred to that division as “appalling” — a deviation from the unity that many Christians hold dear.

According to a 2007 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, mainline churches had congregations that were 91 percent white and Evangelical churches were 81 percent white. Aside from historically black churches, the denominations with the next highest rate of African-American attendants were Muslims at 24 percent and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 22 percent.

Local members of the clergy who spoke with The Star all said an obvious factor in the division is that of habit.

“In a real sense we just do what we've always done,” said the Rev. Charles Gregory, pastor of Victory Headquarters Christian Center.

The Rev. Steven Richardson is pastor of Seventeenth Street Baptist Church in Anniston — the successor to the Rev. N.Q. Reynolds, who was beaten for trying to integrate the library. Richardson said that for many African-Americans, their church represents far more than a family tradition. In the days of segregation, black churches served as schools, town halls and community centers. That’s where children learned about historic black figures such as abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass, and where they were encouraged to express themselves through things such as music, he said. And for many African-Americans, church still plays that vital role in their lives.

“Today, I see how that has helped me tremendously,” Richardson said.

The Rev. Hugh Jones, interim rector for the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, said attracting a diverse congregation is tough.

“My gosh, we would just be thrilled if we had more people from our immediate area come worship with us," Jones said.

An Episcopal congregation, St. Michael’s is one of Anniston’s oldest churches, and though it is primarily a white congregation, it is in an area that is predominantly African-American. Jones said getting more African-Americans in its pews is something the church has talked about over the decades, and St. Michael has several events every year aimed at getting folks from the immediate vicinity into the church.

“We probably need to take a leaf out of their page rather than the other way around,” he said, referring to a change in worship style.

Both Gregory and the Rev. Peter Hawker, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, said their churches are offering different styles of services in the hopes of making more people more comfortable.

"We want to walk alongside people regardless of race or culture," Hawker said.

Gregory said churches need to do a better job of having guests from different congregations.

Both Hawker and Gregory said another important way for congregations to show their commitment to diversity is by having a diverse church staff — especially people on stage such as worship leaders or performers.

All of the clergy members said that, however slowly, race is becoming less of a divider among Christians.

“I have a tremendous faith in God, and I absolutely believe we are going to see a change," Gregory said.

And perhaps another one of the places in Anniston that remains segregated is one’s final resting place.

K.L. Brown, owner of two funeral homes in the area that bear his name, said that up until the last 10 years, few African-American families patronized his business. He said that in the past, a difference in service styles was a factor, but he’s not sure why the problem has persisted.

“It’s nothing short of ridiculous, because they interact at schools and in the community together,” he said, referring to white and black residents.

Brown said he knows many funeral home directors in the state, and he would be surprised if racism played a large role in the divide. Regardless, he said, he believes things are changing — slowly.

“It's like anything else, it's going to take some time and effort on both sides," he said.

Roy Goodson, owner of Goodson Funeral Home, said a large segment of the population is more than happy to overlook race if the services and prices are right, and he only sees that segment growing.

Goodson estimated that he served about 20 white families last year, compared to about 80 African-American families, and he expects those numbers to even out even more this year.

“Everyone is going to die, and I cater to everybody,” he said.

Acknowledging history

Glisson, of the William Winter Institute, said it’s not surprising that people choose to surround themselves with people of similar backgrounds, but gave several reasons why Southerners should seek out more integrated lives.

“There are plenty of moral imperatives that are familiar to anybody who reads any holy book,” Glisson said.

And there are practical imperatives, too. The demographics of the country are changing, with America projected to have no racial group in the majority by 2040. In that world, people who aren’t accustomed to interacting across racial lines may find themselves left behind.

“If we want to avoid conflict, we have to have experience in intergroup settings,” she said.

Talking about the history of race and racial injustice is a good place to start, Glisson said. But it’s often hard to do in small communities, where people fear the consequences of saying something wrong. When Glisson works with groups to discuss these issues, she says, she often asks them to start with stories of their own experiences with the racial line.

“Storytelling is something we love to do,” she said. “While it’s true that we’re wired for implicit bias, we’re also wired for empathy.”

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.

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