It so happened that I finished reading The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee, in the same tragic week as the worst mass shooting in modern American history at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, an event no less emblematic of a hate crime than the Charleston black church massacre of the previous year. But most Americans, especially white Americans, do not recall – or do not want to recall – that until relatively recent times hate used to be baked into the quotidian course of existence for African-Americans in Florida and in South Carolina and throughout the south of the old Confederacy. This hate was most manifest in exclusion, and it was so mundane it was unremarkable – at least until a re-energized and resolute Civil Rights movement had the audacity to stand against it; then an appalled nation that did not really want to know of such things came to understand that red blood on black skin was the true emblem of the white unreconstructed south. As The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement aptly details, there were actually areas in Florida that an African-American could not visit without a white escort. [p31] Yet, in the exploration of nuance and complexity that true historians thrive upon, in this fascinating analysis Altensee reveals that civil rights was not all rock-throwing and police dogs, and that Orlando offered a surprising alternative to conflict that slowly but successfully desegregated the public spheres of their police force and the school system.
Full disclosure: Fred Altensee received his Master’s Degree in History from American Public University one year before I did. As such, we are acquainted with each other through both the virtual world of online education and social networking. Fred sent me a copy of this book and asked me review it. I must admit I dreaded this as much as I do when a friend urges me to see his band play at a local bar and seeks my opinion of the performance: the notion of drinking poison rather than commenting is an attractive alternative. So it was with great relief and attendant pleasure that I read Fred’s book and found it exceptionally informative and revealing. This volume is a published version of the author’s master’s thesis, based upon extensive original research including his oral history interviews with surviving members of the first African-American officers to serve on the Orlando police force. Augmenting this authenticity is the fact that Altensee is a former police officer himself, and a current resident of Orlando.
The relationship of African-Americans and the police throughout the south was most palpably defined by a culture dominated by the Ku Klux Klan and a police force devoted to enforcing Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination. Not only were blacks subject to being herded to the back of the bus and consigned to separate restrooms, but they were not welcome in many business establishments at all, and certain geographies were entirely forbidden to them, especially after dark. A failure to abide met not only with intimidation but often violence and sometimes death. That was the reality of the day. So what distinguished Orlando from many other locales was far less recalcitrance towards at least some forms of integration, and especially the establishment of biracial committees that achieved a major step forward as a handful of African-Americans were hesitatingly but nevertheless successfully added to the rolls of the Orlando police force. By today’s standards, this was a baby step at best: black cops patrolled only black neighborhoods, could not carry guns, lacked radios or patrol cars and could arrest someone only insofar as they could escort the perpetrator to a call box and wait for white officers to arrive. Black officers “could not arrest or even testify against a white person.” [p44-45] Yet, this initial integration was accomplished without court order or the national guard, an especially remarkable feat given the times. Altensee reminds us that:
In 1951, the same year Orlando hired its first African-American police officers, the Klan held two cross burnings in downtown Orlando . . . In February, an African-American janitor was beaten and shot for allegedly entering the girls restroom in a white elementary school unescorted. A month later, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, his brother-in-law is beaten, flogged and shot to death – the only reported lynching in the United States in 1951. In July, an apartment building is dynamited after the owner rented an apartment to a black family . . . in November, the Creamette Frozen Custard Stand . . . is bombed for refusing to serve blacks and whites at separate windows. [p39]
Despite an environment of volatility and violence, Altensee’s studied analysis demonstrates that it was possible for cautious and respected members of the white and black communities to come together to achieve at least a foundation for long-term meaningful change. It is difficult for us to imagine or appreciate black police officers with no radios, cars or guns, but in Orlando in 1951 – and across much of the south – it was even more fantastical that there were black police officers at all!
The chief weakness of Altensee’s otherwise fine book is that as a thesis paper it is thus constricted in style and presentation. I would like to see it rewritten and expanded, as I suspect there is much more material that did not make the final cut given the academic audience. Also, the portion of the book devoted to desegregating the public schools does not receive nearly as much attention as the focus upon the police department, which probably deserves a book length treatment of its own. Another quibble is Altensee’s handling of the famous N-word, a despicable epithet hurled by a white supremacist like David Duke, a typical component to a song lyric by a rapper like Ludacris, a snatch of an excerpt from a Mark Twain novel, and a harmless colloquialism among black and brown people across America today. I’m with the late George Carlin on this one: it is just a word; it is the context that matters. But in the context of this book, as experienced by the African-Americans who had it used again them, it was extremely defamatory, intimidating, insulting, dehumanizing. Yet, in the narrative it appears as N________, which to my mind reduces the power of the word as an offensive curse, as it was then intended. When asked about this, Fred notes that he abhors the word and would not spell it out in his own personal journal, and I can respect that. But I can’t help feeling that by inserting it in euphemistic abbreviation the expletive loses the power to make the reader wince the way the subjects of such derision must have winced at the time.
These minor points aside, I highly recommend this extremely well-written and insightful slender volume. I was truly surprised by how much that I learned from Altensee’s focused account of how one city in the segregated south managed to take positive steps towards a new future. Despite the recent terror at Pulse, Orlando today is light-years away from where it was in the mid-twentieth century, especially for the African-Americans who were once relegated to second class status, and of course there is no longer any novelty to blacks serving on its police force. But racism remains a stubborn problem in the United States, and not only in the south, although the uneasy currents are perhaps more palpable there. Even today, while 29% of Orlando’s population is African-American, only some 16% of its police are, and we can hardly overlook the significance in these kinds of disparities. Still, there is no doubt that Orlando has dramatically evolved from the days when it gingerly recruited a handful of black cops who were not even trusted with firearms. Special thanks to Fred Altensee and this fine book for an opportunity to look back thoughtfully and analytically at times very different from our own.