The Hanging of Tom Brown

A Civil Rights Odyssey

Chapter 1: The Awakening

February is Black history month; In 1987 while I was teaching history at John F. Kennedy Middle School in North Miami Beach, Florida. I had covered almost everything from slavery through the Civil War and was approaching modern day. I was teaching in a program for at-risk students, who needed all of the stimulation I could give to keep their attention; this meant as many films as possible. It was almost time for my first class and I was madly searching our small film library for something to show.

The previous year was the first year we had observed Martin Luther King Day, and when I found a newsreel type film on the Selma-Montgomery March, it clicked. That was a part of my history, and I felt that I could grab their attention. I didn’t know till later during first period just how right I was.

I always made sure to preview films before showing them but, like I said, it was time for class and I was in a hurry. The film began to roll. As the marchers were crossing the bridge, two young white men on crutches were briefly in the frame.

“That’s me” I said, “and that’s Billy!” There were a few laughs followed by “You’re kidding,” “Yeah, Right,” and other remarks. I ran the film back and stopped it on the correct frame. There were two young white men on crutches struggling to keep up. One had a crew cut and black horn-rimmed glasses. He had not grown a beard or starting wearing contacts, and he hadn’t yet decided to become a teacher. That wouldn’t happen till later.

The students began asking questions, “Why were you on crutches? What were you doing there? Is that really you?” “Why were those people being attacked?” I had their attention! Every one of my six classes suddenly began to show a great deal more interest in their history than ever before.

That night, my memories flooded back—both good and evil. I spent hours recalling the goodness and injustice of men. Twice that night nightmares woke me in a cold sweat.

For the first time, though, I realized that my experiences in the sixties were more than a series of personal memories. I saw how they intersect with a crucial time in our country’s history.

I couldn’t face telling the details. But the students’ reactions had taught me the power of such stories to make an earlier time come alive.

Now I’m finally ready to tell the story. The full story of the struggle against racism in the U.S., of course, began long before I became aware of it. But my education in civil rights began the summer I finished high school, 1958.