The Hanging of Tom Brown

A Civil Rights Odyssey

Chapter 2: Mobile

Fresh out of high school and with a 2-month vacation ahead of me, I decided to see that beautiful paradise called Florida. Warm sun, sandy beaches and beautiful girls held a great appeal. Being the proud owner of a 1953 Indian Chief Motorcycle, the “open road” was calling.

Actually, I was born wanting to “Go." While my father was serving in the US Navy during WWII, my mother and I lived with her parents in Middle Tennessee. My grandfather was a Methodist “circuit rider” minister, always serving small rural churches, usually four at a time. My mother told me that the first word I ever said was “Go”.

When I saw Granddad putting on his hat I would start yelling “Go, Go, Go,” and my grandfather would pack me, a couple of bottles and a stack of diapers in his old car and we would set out to visit the members of his various churches. While traveling with him on his “home visits,” I don’t know how many times I heard, “He’s going to be a great little preacher, just like his granddad.” So I grew up believing that I was destined to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps.

After high school it only seemed natural that I should apply to the closest Methodist collage. I was accepted at Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tennessee and set out on the long road to become a Methodist minister. I got derailed at the beginning of my junior year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The summer of 1958, I left our home on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee and headed for Pensacola, Florida, the closest beach available. It and looked like a great place to wind down before embarking on my collage days and my dreams of becoming a minister.    

Coming back from my two week motorcycle vacation in th e Florida Panhandle, I stopped in a drug store in Mobile, Alabama, to get a bite to eat. As I came in and sat at the lunch counter, a number of other people came in behind me. They were a mixed group of white and black people.

Having spent much of my early life in Southern California, I did not react as many southerners would have. The black man who sat beside me was wearing a clerical collar. I said, hello to him and waited for the waitress to take my order. In a short while the sound of sirens could be heard in the street out front of the store. Police flooded through the front door.

I turned to the minister to ask if he knew what was happening. But before I could say anything, I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my neck. Then I was unconscious. I did not realize until later that what I had walked in on was a “sit in” and I was seen as a participant.

I should point out that after my father came home from the war, we lived in San Diego, California, from my third through the fifth grade. In elementary school in California the classes were of all races. White students were in the minority.

When we moved back to Tennessee, where the races lived in separate communities, I adapted to the new environment. I assumed that everyone was happy with the way things were.

That summer day, I woke up to find I was sharing a jail cell with a group of black men. I felt screaming pain from a fractured collar bone. The minister, Reverend Anderson, introduced himself and his friends. After describing how the officer, aiming for my head with a night stick, missed when I turned and hit me on the collar bone, Rev. Anderson spent the rest of the night explaining how things were for “colored people.”

I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t know. I knew that the races in Tennessee lived in different parts of town, and somehow I realized that it had been different during the three years I had lived in San Diego California. There my two best friends were Walter Gabery, a black kid and Teddy Roosevelt Lincoln Gonzalez, who came from Mexico.

Reverend Anderson made me see the injustices. In a calm, reasonable voice he explained that the restaurants, stores, hotels, theaters and most business establishments had clear policies of exclusion or, at least, separation. He told stories about black people trying to travel across country from city to city and finding no place to eat, sleep or use a restroom.

Public transportation vehicles, like city buses and even cross country buses, all had a white line about two seats in front of the back door. The line ran across the floor, up the walls and across the ceiling. In the front of the bus and on the front side of the painted line was a sign that read “White Only,” and behind the line and above the back window was a sign that read “Colored Only.” Riding home from school I kind of envied the people who could sit in the back. I thought that sitting back there with my girl friend would have been more fun.

In downtown Chattanooga there was only one “walk in” movie theater and the colored people “got” to sit in the balcony while my girl and I “had” to sit on the main floor and actually watch the movie. I had never been in the Greyhound bus station in Chattanooga, but Reverend Anderson described it to me. The “white” section had comfortable seats and small tables in the waiting room, with a lunch counter where white customers were served on china plates with real glasses, cups and saucers. There were even small TV sets, which could be played by putting in a quarter for thirty minutes.

In the separate “Colored” waiting room there were rough benches made of raw lumber with no tables or any areas of comfort. The restrooms were little better than indoor “out houses.” If anyone wished to buy something to eat, the menu was posted by a window, which could only be opened from the other side. The person would decide what they wanted; knock on the window and wait. When the waitress wasn’t busy with a white customer on the other side, she might decide to see what the person who had knocked wanted to order. The “colored” customer would be served on paper plates with paper drinking cups and wooden utensils. The waitress and a sign posted by the window cautioned them to throw their trash in the trashcan. It was up to them to keep the “colored” waiting room and the restroom clean.

In places where there were drinking fountains, there would be one with chilled water and “a White Only” sign over it. There would be another with a “Colored Only” sign, little more than a small sink with an upside down water faucet, many times connected with a piece of garden hose rather than metal pipes.

When Reverend Anderson started talking about the differences between white and black schools I pointed out that the newest and largest High School in Chattanooga was Howard High, the black high school and he asked how many white high schools there were. I had to admit that there were at least six. He said, “Yes, and all the Colored kids have to go to that one.” He then pointed out that the majority of their teachers were not college graduates and that their textbooks were the cast offs from the white schools.

So the night went, with one story after another about the injustice of the so called “Separate but Equal” doctrine which governed the treatment of one race by another. By the next morning, I was so upset that when we were taken before a judge and he asked “How did we plea?”

I said, “Guilty!”.

Reverend Anderson stood up and said, “Your Honor, he wasn’t with us. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The judge ordered me to “Get on that motorcycle and get your nigger-loving ass out of the state of Alabama!” He further ordered that I be escorted to the state line. An Alabama state trooper followed me all the way to the Tennessee line. Each time I stopped for gas or something to eat he was right there to urge me on my way. When he turned around at the state line he gave me a “one finger” salute.