Saturday, January 26, 2013

Eyewitness To History

Michael Keith checking out his platter collection at WGST

Back in the early '60s I was a kid in junior high school in New York and my future husband, Michael, was working at Atlanta’s Radio WGST. In addition to his music program, he created a daily half-hour news show. It changed his life.  Michael had grown up in Greenville, South Carolina, in a world with very clear boundaries, in a segregated society. And while my world contained people of color, and the civil rights movement was something happening far away that we only knew from the six ‘o clock news, Michael did not go to school or even to church with people of color. The only black people he knew were the maids who worked for his family, and sometimes, the children of those women.

The Varsity Drive-in: WGST news team's favorite lunch spot in 1963.

      Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of JFK’s assassination? Michael does. He’d just had lunch with fellow radio man Dan Akens, at the Varsity, a drive-in joint on the Georgia Tech campus. The Varsity, which exists to this day,  featured car-hops with big personalities, like the one who for fifty years sang the menu to his customers, and the young Nipsy Russell who wore crazy outfits and entertained his customers and later became famous as a comedian.
President Obama ordering a burger at the Varsity today

     With President Kennedy’s election came awareness of the civil rights movement. It was the central theme of the local news in Atlanta. And Michael found a way to make it pay. The ABC Network paid for "actualities," short clips of newsmakers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Julian Bond expressing their views via the media. Naturally civil rights leaders like King made themselves available for reporters. And Michael, who received a tidy fee from the ABC network for each actuality used, was happy to help the civil rights leaders like King and Julian Bond get their message out. He spoke with them, and recorded their comments, regularly. Of course Michael also interviewed the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, because it was his job to balance his reports.  And ABC News paid him for those remarks, too.
The house in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised.
     Michael was very naive then, though smart and ambitious, and possessed of an amazingly mellifluous voice just made for announcing. In Atlanta, reporting the news, he began to question the core beliefs of the society in which he’d been raised. Eugene Patterson, editor at the Atlanta Constitution, who died last week, wrote stirring editorials on the subject. Michael read them, and was swayed. After the Birmingham church bombing, in 1963, Patterson wrote an editorial so powerful that Walter Cronkite invited him to read it on the national TV news.

     “Patterson and others like him were taking the lead in standing up to the extremists who endorsed violence to maintain segregation,” Michael remembers. “It made you start to think. How can we allow discrimination to go on? How can people kill children? This isn’t America. The scales began to fall from my eyes when I read Patterson. I watched King’s "I Have a Dream" speech live on television, and I thought how can we deny people their right to the American dream because of the color of their skin?  I decided it wasn’t right. I wouldn’t be that way.”
   Then came the ah-ha moment.
"....explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children." (from Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
     "One day on the radio in Atlanta I heard a black preacher describe prejudice as 'that blind vampire of the mind that sucks the red blood of healthy hopes.' Today, I can't recall that preacher's name. But his words stuck with me.  I thought: how can people who are just like me, wanting to get ahead in the world, be put down and disadvantaged all of their lives for something they cannot control, and are not responsible for — the color of their skin? The injustice of it was brought home to me by that preacher’s graphic words."

     Michael wasn’t a leader, and he didn’t aim to be a hero; he was a just a cub reporter, with a wife and two kids to support. But he knew where he stood.

On his many years of teaching Julian Bond, (shown here) recently had this to say about his students: "I hope they learned that the civil rights movement was a movement of ordinary people, many of them just like these young people who were sitting in my class."
    Michael was on the scene in 1964 when three black high school boys decided to force their way into the Pickrick Cafeteria in Atlanta. The Pickrick’s owner, Lester Maddox, adamantly refused to allow black people into his restaurant, in spite of the newly passed Civil Rights Act. The media had been alerted to the planned confrontation. A mob of angry segregationists had assembled. Michael approached the three young men and said to them “You need to think this through. You’re gonna get hurt. This isn’t the way to do this.” The students retreated. And on the front page of the Atlanta Times the next day, there was a photo of Michael, microphone in hand, speaking to the black students.  He wasn’t being a hero. He was being practical, he says today.

    “I knew those guys were gonna get hurt,” he says. "It was as simple as that.” Weeks later a better organized group of college students hired an attorney to challenge the illegal segregation of the Pickrick. And they won.  Rather than integrate, Maddox closed his restaurant. On the wave of that publicity, he was elected governor of Georgia.
 He didn't go to jail. He went to the Governor's mansion.
     On one occasion Michael interviewed Martin Luther King in person. King had piercing eyes, Michael remembers. King was very angry that he was being criticized for his opposition to the Vietnam War. Michael recalls King’s anguish, and also the absolute courage of his convictions.

      Recently I spoke with Reverend Robinson of the Big Coppitt Baptist Church. When the pastor mentioned Reverend King, I told him that my husband had interviewed the man in the '60s.
    “I bet that is a day he will never forget,” Reverend Robinson said.
    I told Michael at dinner that night.
    “He’s right,” Michael said. "Who could?"

      I love talking with Michael about those times. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a few months before I graduated from high school. By then Michael was out of the news business, and a student of history at Furman University. He was no longer naive. He knew how he felt and how he wanted to live.

     Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero in our home. Our son Miguel, who shares a birthday with King, has grown up knowing that. When Miguel was a little kid he and Michael sometimes talked about those days before the Civil Rights Act, when black people were not allowed in stores, restaurants, schools and churches. It was astonishing to Miguel, a kid born and raised in Key West, to know that his parents had lived in those times and witnessed that world.
The speech heard 'round the world:  I Have a Dream. Washington, D.C. 1963.  Fifty years ago!

    “You know,” Michael said, “someday Miguel will tell his children about a time when people were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. That they fought for the right to marry the person they love. And you know what? Miguel’s children will be astonished to hear that.”


1 comment:

  1. June -Just found you via a link-back to my site, and wanted to give a shout out and tell you I'm enjoying reading your blog. Have always wanted to visit Key West, and getting to know it a bit via your blog is fun.