Five decades ago, Alvin Jackson marched with a handful of fellow blacks down Broad Street, standing up for rights that were, at that time, only a dream, while having racial slurs and objects hurled at him.
Jackson, now 67, can recall with clarity how it felt to be in that group of protesters in 1964.
He described receiving horrible insults from people outside a business on Broad Street. Today, many businesses, schools and governments completely shut down once a year to celebrate the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggles of the movement itself.
“During the march, when we came down Broad Street, there was a lot of commotion and the police were trying to get us to go to East Rome,” Jackson said, mentioning that the police redirected the protesters via Second Avenue, and they passed the building that is now Eastwood Apartments.
“At the time, those were dormitories… they threw feces down on us. There are some things I’ll never forget. And now, when I look around, it seems everyone wants to forget about it.”
“Nobody has ever wanted to talk about race and racism openly in Rome and Floyd County, although it’s evident it’s still here today… it may be in a different form, it’s not as visible, but people really don’t want to have that conversation about race,” said Jackson.
He added that various groups he and others are a part of, such as 100 Black Men, the NAACP, the King Commission and One Community United, have tried many times over the years to host forums and events to bring the topic to the table.
“We’ve tried several times, but it’s never seemed to catch on,” he said. “People don’t want to talk about (racism), like it’s non-existent in Rome. We’ve come a long way but there are still signs of racism to a certain degree in everything that you do here in Rome and Floyd County.”
“You often hear black folks say, you’ve got to be black to know how racism feels,” Jackson pointed out. “And that’s a true statement as far as I’m concerned.”
Real estate and racism
To honor the MLK Jr. holiday this year, the King Commission, 100 Black Men and Rome Little Theatre are hosting a series of events starting Friday, and the celebration will kick off with a free showing of RLT’s production of “Clybourne Park,” a dark comedy with race and real estate issues at its heart. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play will show at the DeSoto Theatre on Jan. 13th at 6 p.m., and is a spinoff of the classic play “Raisin in the Sun.”
The play’s director Gail Deschamps says the opening scene of “Clybourne Park” picks up immediately after the closing scene of “Raisin in the Sun.” The play’s first act is set in 1959, and the second act, taking place in the same house, occurs 50 years later.
Michael Hillman, an actor in the play, portrays a man named Karl during Act One, a character steeped in prejudice, who sees race as a vital issue.
“(Karl) feels deeply threatened when an African-American family buys a house in his all white neighborhood,” Hillman explained. “He is clearly a segregationist, and would not have any issues admitting this.”
The play cleverly focuses on the American Dream of owning a home and property and how race plays into that, Hillman said, tying together sentiments from the civil rights era and what we still see today in more modern times.
The race-and-real estate topics brought up in “Clybourne Park” are not so far from things Jackson says blacks locally have experienced over the years. Before segregation, certain neighborhoods around town were basically distinct territories of whites or blacks, with no co-mingling.
“When I was growing up, we had black neighborhoods,” Jackson said. “I grew up on 14th Street and that was before the highway came through there and we were a close-knit community. Everyone knew each other.”
He described his neighborhood as being very friendly, with people leaving their doors open and neighbors taking each other’s laundry inside for them if it started to rain. But as roads and highways started winding their ways though the communities, it destroyed those old neighborhoods, and with it, the friendly feel of them.
“We don’t have that kind of cohesiveness in our neighborhoods now,” Jackson said. “South Rome is probably the largest black close-knit community there is, when we used to have them all over town.”
As a teenager, Jackson recalled having to stay away from certain parts of town where he and other blacks weren’t welcome.
“Maple Street was sort of like the boundary. The public housing near Cedar Avenue, 12th and all that area, those were the white folks’ projects. You couldn’t go near those, couldn’t move in or anything. The projects up on 14th Street were the black folks’ projects.”
In North Rome for example, there were shops and stores blacks felt comfortable socializing at, but the nearby Blossom Hill and North Heights areas were off limits.
“You couldn’t go into those neighborhoods,” he said. “If you did, they would look at you like, ‘What are you doing in our neighborhood?’”
Jackson will serve on a diverse panel of city and county officials, clergy members, education, real estate, and media representatives for a symposium titled “A Conversation on Race Relations” at the DeSoto Theatre on Saturday.
But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that black people weren’t allowed inside the DeSoto Theatre at all.
“We couldn’t go to the DeSoto Theatre,” Jackson remembered, “We had one theater located in East Rome on 14th Street for black folks. It was called the Carver Theatre. It was run by a white person.”
Having grown up during the Civil Rights Era, he said he can remember things vividly that many take for granted today, like shopping for clothes and shoes.
“When my parents would bring us to town, on Broad Street you’d have to bring your own socks and if you tried on shoes, they were yours regardless of the size,” he said.
It was common for black families to buy their children clothes several sizes too big for them because they couldn’t try them on for proper sizing. To see movies, black people would go to the theater in Cedartown but would have to sit up in the balcony, while the seats in front of the screen were reserved for white patrons only.
“We couldn’t eat downtown,” Jackson said. “There was a place called the Bumblebee Cafe; I think about it all the time now.”
While they couldn’t go in the cafe, blacks could order from a window at the back of the restaurant.
“Blacks had to go down that alley and to that window and order food, then you had to walk and eat it or go back up to the bus station and eat there. The bus station had a colored side and a white side, so you felt comfortable there. We would shine shoes to make some extra money.”
At the Krystal, located on the 300 block of Broad Street, Jackson said black people would have to stand at the back of the restaurant until someone came to take their order, which could often take a long time, and then they’d have to eat their meal elsewhere. They knew which sections of town Ku Klux Klan members would burn crosses at — such as the hill at Shorter College — and would steer clear.
“Downtown wasn’t really receptive until we went through the march and desegregation, around 1964,” he said.
Let’s talk about it
Jackson said while there have been improvements, there’s still a lot of progress that has to be made, but that can’t happen unless we start an uncomfortable conversation and continue to keep it going.
“We need to have more open dialogue and that’s the reason for this symposium,” Jackson said. “Certain things have to be discussed that people have shied away from. You’re going to be uncomfortable with some of the things that are asked.”
Having more black people stand as community leaders would be beneficial to the town, he said, mentioning that it was notable when Denise Downer-McKinney was elected Chief of Police for the Rome Police Department.
“Back in my day, we had a couple of (black) police officers in the city limits that couldn’t arrest whites,” he said.
But he also listed instances locally where the black community has been snubbed. For example, there are no black teachers at Elm Street Elementary School, he said, and there has never been a black person who has served on the County Board of Education.
“We’ve had people that were well-qualified, more than some of the people who have sat on the board,” he said. “Reverend Doctor Henderson Spivey, he’s dead and gone now, but he had eight kids go through the county school system. He had a Ph.D., but when he came up for the appointment process, he was turned down. When you look at the qualifications of board members at that time, they had not the knowledge or qualifications he had. It’s frustrating.”
After the recent presidential election, Jackson said he feels the division within the country is staggering. He is hopeful that the younger generations will make more progress and will one day look beyond the color of each other’s skin.
But that won’t happen any time soon, he says, unless we start talking about race relations more openly, which can make others shift uncomfortably in their seats. However, it’s those very uncomfortable conversations that are perhaps the most important ones to have.
“You’ve got to talk about how you feel about each other,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to ask questions that, I hope, make you uncomfortable. You have to answer those questions in an honest way. Until we sit down and have those conversations, nothing’s really going to change.”