Because mainstream media covers fewer and fewer civil liberties stories by the day, I do what I can to report on this critical subject. Given what the Bush Administration did to trash our Constitution over the past eight years, most of what I write is depressing. And my friends are constantly asking me: Can't you find something cheerful to write about?
So once or twice a year, I search for enough positive information to write a "good news" column.
This is my first of 2009.
Every once in a while, I go to the web to read stories from the newspaper that, in 1950, suspended its good judgment and hired me as a cub reporter. Later, the Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal sent me to the county seat, a little town called DeLand, to run their bureau there.
Now, DeLand was familiar territory to me. I did my undergraduate work at Stetson University in that town.
The Stetson I knew was populated by a combination of Southern Baptist fundamentalists and uninformed and uninterested sons and daughters of the rich -- Bubbas and wannabe Southern Belles. How fundamentalist? Well, when I got to be editor of the college weekly newspaper, I was summoned to the office of the Dean of Students and told that I couldn't print the word "dance," because dancing led to pregnancy (we compromised on "frolic").
When I arrived in DeLand to begin my studies, I was "rushed" by most of the many fraternities on campus - until they found out I was Jewish. Suddenly, the attention dried up. It was like turning off a light-switch!
So for four years, I remained the only Jew in the school (there were also three Catholics, out of total enrollment of some 1,500 students). Many of the students had never seen a Jew before I appeared, and I believe they were expecting a menacing creature with horns.
The DeLand I knew was, like most Southern towns of that era, thoroughly Jim Crow -- a combination of Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. The civil rights movement hadn't caught anyone's attention yet, and that was still the case when I came back to this central Florida redneck town to cover the cops and the courts.
My most vivid memories of that time were watching the local sheriff and his deputies carrying out their Saturday night raids into "colored town." Their mission was to arrest anything moving that was black. The sheriff and his merry men had a great incentive: They were on the so-called "fee system" in which their paychecks were determined mostly by the cash bonds posted by the people they arrested. The more folks arrested, the more bonds got posted, and the more money they got. The ones who couldn't post bonds were sent to jail.
I got into a heap of trouble writing about these "Saturday Night Raids" for the News-Journal (like get-out-of-town-or-else threats). But my old paper had the courage to publish them, often on page one.
I give you all this ancient background so that you might be able to understand my total disbelief when I read this headline in News-Journal Online:
"Stetson Students Re-create Freedom Rides."
Here are the salient parts of the story I read, written by staff writer John Bozzo.
Following in the path of the 1961 civil rights Freedom Rides was an eye-opening experience for Stetson University student Rebecca Hallum.
"It really changes your perspective," said the 21-year-old political science-psychology major, one of 19 students from Stetson and its College of Law who re-created the bus ride last July.
"For me, it's hard to ever understand being treated with any sort of inequality because I'm a white middle-class female," Hallum said. "To see what these people had to go through simply to ride a bus was inspiring."
During the weeklong civil rights seminar, students followed the road traveled by the 1961 Freedom Riders, who rode buses in the South challenging segregation on interstate transportation.
Students met with civil rights activists including Allen Cason, a native of Orlando who participated in the Freedom Ride 48 years ago.
"He had an incredible story," Hallum said. "He was actually imprisoned after the ride. He was in solitary confinement for about a month and lived basically on bread and water."