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50 years: Remembering the struggle for civil rights

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In 1963, The Beatles’ first song, “From Me to You,” hit the UK charts. Mickey Mantle knocked a baseball out of Yankee Stadium. And “The Judy Garland Show” debuted on the CBS network.  But for African-Americans who endured that tumultuous year the memories were often rooted in fear, coercion and intimidation.
In 1963, segregationists clashed — sometimes violently — with blacks and those who supported their civil rights. African-Americans fought firehoses, corrupt cops and Ku Klux Klan crucifixions.
They were routinely denied jobs and equal pay. They were pushed to the backs of public buses and out of some public classrooms. They were the subject of dozens of cruel and deadly acts, including an infamous Alabama church bombing that killed four girls there.
The tides turned in August 1963, when 250,000 African-Americans and civil rights supporters answered the tirades of would-be segregationists with a historic march on Washington, D.C.  
The demand was simple: Equality for all.

In 1963, The Beatles’ first song, “From Me to You,” hit the UK charts. Mickey Mantle knocked a baseball out of Yankee Stadium. And “The Judy Garland Show” debuted on the CBS network.  But for African-Americans who endured that tumultuous year the memories were often rooted in fear, coercion and intimidation.
In 1963, segregationists clashed — sometimes violently — with blacks and those who supported their civil rights. African-Americans fought firehoses, corrupt cops and Ku Klux Klan crucifixions.
They were routinely denied jobs and equal pay. They were pushed to the backs of public buses and out of some public classrooms. They were the subject of dozens of cruel and deadly acts, including an infamous Alabama church bombing that killed four girls there.
The tides turned in August 1963, when 250,000 African-Americans and civil rights supporters answered the tirades of would-be segregationists with a historic march on Washington, D.C.  
The demand was simple: Equality for all.
President Barack Obama recognized the long struggle for civil rights last month in his second inauguration address — delivered on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, nearly 50 years after a series of events triggered the nationwide fight for equality.
In his speech, the nation’s first-ever black president embraced equality for all, telling the legion of thousands, which included several students and others from Washington County, that every American — regardless of race, gender, national origin or sexuality — should be equally respected.
But as Obama reminded the nation, the struggle for equality still continues.

Life here in 1963
Fifty years ago, blacks represented just 8 percent of Washington County’s total population; they accounted for 22 percent of the population in the Springfield city limits. Both are figures that have remained steady since that decade.
African-American and Washington County native Pam Grundy was 10 years old at the peak of the civil rights movement. At the time, she said she was likely naive to certain events, which have since become standard text-book material in American history. 
“I was probably in the background playing back then,” recalled Grundy, now 63. “But over the years, mom would tell us, ‘I couldn’t afford to let you out of our sight. Something may have happened.’” 
Grundy said blacks were banned or restricted from certain local businesses in the 1960s, including the former Hubbard ‘s restaurant on Main Street in Springfield. The downtown eatery used to give away free milkshakes to winning athletes after a ball game, she said.
“But black kids were handed their milkshakes out the back door,” she said. “They had to go elsewhere to eat them.”
As a child, Grundy attended an all-black school in Briartown and often wondered about the cross-town activities of white students, with whom she never interacted.
“We knew where those schools were, but never thought about going in. My mom would’ve never let me,” she said. “We always got second-hand books at the black school. We had a playground, but it was mostly things our parent’s had built.”
Local media coverage in 1963 recorded little about Washington County’s black community during one of the most pivotal years in American history.
In 1963, The Springfield Sun editorialized about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of socialism, Jewish genocide, tuberculosis — even milk production at the county’s many dairies. The Sun failed to report on the civil rights movement that year.  
As few as five photos of African-Americans were published in The Sun in 1963 — most were featured in the background of more prominent white newsmakers.
Headlines often referred to members of the local black community as “coloreds or negroes.”
In an Aug, 15, 1963 edition of The Sun, a front-page headline read: ‘Negro Youths Seized after Number Thefts.’
It detailed an account of two 10-year-old boys who reportedly admitted to stealing air rifles, knives, clothing, cigarettes lighters, four watermelons and a pack of wieners, among other items from local stores. The boys were arrested following a “quiet and effective investigation” by patrolmen, according to newspaper reports. 
Local headlines from Sept. 12, 1963 reveal a story about an African-American girl who was reportedly gagged and bound in the closet of her Briartown home by two young white boys. A handkerchief was reportedly stuffed in the girl’s mouth. Her hands and feet were tied, while her family’s house was ransacked.
It’s unclear if the intruders were ever arrested. Newspaper reports only indicated that police were investigating their identities. No follow-up article appeared on the case.
While obituaries in The Sun reported the deaths of black members of the community, they were often distinguished with monikers that modern day readers would find offensive.
Out of 52 weekly editions from 1963, only one article appeared in The Sun glorifying an African-American.
On Sept. 19, 1963, the paper published a two-inch story about African-American Billy “Swivel Hips” Wakefield, a then, 135-pound, junior halfback who lifted the Springfield Panthers to their first victory of the season. 
“I remember the game, but I don’t remember the photo,” Wakefield said in a 50-year-anniversary, post-interview with The Springfield Sun last week.
Wakefield, now 67 and 60 pounds heavier, said the game was a highlight for him decades ago.
“It was great because we didn’t have a very good team,” he said. “I scored twice at about 85 yards and about 35 yards.”
Springfield High had only been integrated for two years, Wakefield said. There were few black students at the school, and even fewer black athletes — so the team was forced to come together on the field.
“Back then we didn’t have class divisions,” Wakefield said. “ We had a very small team and we were going against schools who would come with two Greyhound buses of players.”
It was a milestone that even local media couldn’t ignore.

Making strides
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Springfield voters finally elected the first African-American to office. Kent Mudd served as Springfield City councilmember from January 1972 to December 1981.
Since that time, no fewer than five other African-Americans have held city council positions: Charles Richard Spalding, Martha Spalding, Rosetta Smalley, John “Willie” Ellery and Debbie Wakefield. 
Artie Porter was the first — and only — African-American to serve as the city’s chief of police in the 1970s and early ‘80s.  A number of African-Americans have held appointed department-head positions within Springfield. However, no African-American from Washington County has sought office as judge-executive or magistrate at the county level.
Still, black leaders have left a legacy throughout the years.
Grundy said her father, Charles Richard Spalding, who served on the city council during the 1980s, fought tirelessly for businesses to hire black teens for summer jobs.
Current African-American Councilwoman Debbie Wakefield, who won the highest votes to capture a council seat in 2008, said she’s still fighting for teenagers to have a better future — regardless of their race.
Wakefield, 43, attended an integrated St. Dominic’s Catholic School in the 1970s, where she said every student wore the same uniform and was treated uniformly the same.
She recalled vivid childhood memories from the 1970s of walking through the doors of the former Snappy Grill downtown Springfield with her grandfather.
“I never had a problem going anywhere. I did not see any discrimination at all,” she said. “But I’m sure my grandfather couldn’t go in there, years before.” 
Wakefield said she was fortunate to grow up in a more racially-integrated Washington County. It’s a testament to those who fought for her civil rights, she said, and the dialogue is constantly evolving.
“In 50 years, I think blacks and whites will be a minority” as the face of our nation changes, Wakefield said. “But I watch the younger generation now — they don’t see color at all.”
She and others in the black community say there’s still work to be done. But each are optimistic about a future where people can be blind to color.