Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Summer 1963


The State Theater was located on the north side of College Avenue between Monroe and Adams Streets in Tallahassee, Florida.  I remember it well. It was just four blocks down from the Travelodge motel my father managed in the immediate years after he retired from the US Air Force.

Being from a military family who moved at the drop of a hat, exploration was always first on my agenda.  Knowing the layout of the land was an imperative first step in acclimating to new surroundings.  Having a movie theater just down the street seemed a good place to begin.  I would start there. 

The family's military lifestyle did not prepare me for the  nastier aspects of the world I would now exist in.  My parents and I had become used to the protective bubble a military life offered.  There was no such thing as segregation in my world up to that time.

I stepped up to the ticket window and bought a ticket. I remember the black woman inside the ticket booth asking me not once, but twice if I was sure I wanted to go into the theater.  I was adamant.  I was 12.  It was Saturday and I was burning daylight while the matinee was well into its first serial.  She handed me a ticket.  I went in, bought some popcorn and a coke and went into the theater.  Not long after I had settled into my seat, I sensed a presence settle into the seat behind me.  The presence leaned over the back of the seat next to me and whispered, "Boy, are you sure you are in the right theater?"  

I turned and there was a very unfriendly looking black man staring at me hard.  I remember being frozen and slack jawed, unable to respond.  I was scared shitless but did manage to tell him yes, I was in the right theater.  I lived just down the street at the Travelodge and my name was Mike.  I ended with, "We just moved here."

"Son," his voice had become friendlier, "you really are in the wrong theater. ....  You need to leave.  We don't want any trouble here."

I stood up and looked around.  It finally dawned on me there was not one white face there other than mine.  And it seemed to me all eyes were focused on me and not the screen.

I left and walked the four blocks back to the Travelodge.  When I got home, I told my dad I had been kicked out of the theater by a very scary black guy.  He looked at me.  He did not ask what I might have done to deserve getting the boot.  He just sighed and told me to blow it off, we would talk later.  I think he knew but had forgotten how the real world worked.

Thus began my exposure to the very real and ugly world of segregation in the US South in the early 1960's.  That summer I witnessed white people beating on black people while white police leaned on their cruisers sucking on toothpicks.  I was shamed by a public librarian for drinking out of the wrong fountain.  I was told in no uncertain terms that my kind was not allowed to sit in the back of the bus.  And at a nearby rib joint, I was refused service again because I was white. It was an eye opening coming of age summer.  One I have never forgotten.

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