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It's About a Lot More Than a 3 A.M. Phone Call

By       Message William Fisher     Permalink
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It should come as no surprise to anyone that the National Newspaper Publishers Association – the organization representing the nation’s 200--plus black-owned newspapers -- named Barack Obama as the winner of its Newsmaker of the Year Award this week.


It was a no-brainer. Not since the time of Martin Luther King has any African-American made as much news as Senator Obama.

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Given the ill-concealed race and gender issues raised during this nomination contest, it is possible Mr. Obama has mixed feelings about this award. There are many who will simply see it as further confirmation that he is the African-American candidate – not the candidate of all the people. And doubtless, some of his opponents will attempt to frame it that way.


Politicians will do what politicians do – anything to win.


For me, however, this award has a deeper meaning. Because it takes me back more than forty-five years to a time when the Obama phenomenon would have been unthinkable.


The year was 1950. I was a cub reporter for Daytona Beach, Florida, News-Journal, a remarkably progressive daily newspaper.

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After some months, my editors assigned me to run their two-reporter County Seat Bureau, located in a small town called Deland. I knew something about Deland because I had done my undergraduate work there at an institution blessed by the Southern Baptists.

Located in the heart of the central Florida redneck bible-belt, Deland was what most sociology textbooks at the time described as the most corrupt county in the United States. It was largely controlled by the Coca Cola Company and the Florida East Coast Railroad.


The News-Journal gave me the grand title of Bureau Chief.  My beat was what my managing editor called C&C – Cops and Courts. I covered the local police, the county sheriff, and the county court.


For a young Yankee reporter from New York, the experience offered an eye-opening – and terrifying – glimpse into the abyss of the Jim Crow south.

Saturday nights were always the busiest for this fledgling journalist. That’s when a couple of dozen sheriff’s deputies got into their patrol cars and headed for “colored town” – the county seat’s ghetto where the dirt-poor African-Americans lived. 

They swept in like the 101st airborne, arresting virtually anything that moved. Men and women – and the occasional child – were caught up in the sweep, hustled into waiting paddywagons, and dispatched back to the sheriff’s station.

There, they were put behind bars and charged with a variety of heinous crimes – loitering was the most common. If they could post a $25 cash bond, they got out of jail. If not, they stayed locked up.  

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The sheriff and his deputies much preferred getting the cash, because back in those days they were paid on the “fee system,” i.e., their salaries were  substantially composed of a percentage of the fines they collected from folks they arrested.

The later it got, the more arrests were made. It was Saturday night in “colored town.” People drank. Some got into fights. Occasionally there were knifings. But, as I watched, it was clear to me that most of the arrestees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the suspects were nevertheless hustled off to jail. For most of them, a $25 bond was not an option. They were quickly put into tiny cells, where most of them remained through their arraignments and until their trials – sometimes for many months.  

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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