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Column: Civil rights era made for turbulent '60s

The 1960s will be remembered as a time of turbulence, trial and tribulation for black Americans. They faced discrimination, incrimination and recrimination across the nation, and the civil wrongs made a mockery of civil rights if your skin didn't happen to be the proper color.

Constitution? What Constitution? Discriminatory practices were commonplace throughout the land, but were particularly egregious in the Deep South.

My growing-up years in West Texas made me a Southwesterner as opposed to a Southerner, but the mentality of ingrained abuse when it came to the black population was painfully obvious in my hometown. Feel like a ham sandwich and chocolate shake at the counter there in Woolworth's? No problem. Rest assured that folks on the stools at both elbows would be lily-white. And if you wanted a drink of water at the public fountain or to use the restroom in the back of the store, then - no, wait! Make that plural with public fountains and restrooms, because the facilities had labels posted for 'whites only' and the other for blacks. Like to take in a picture show? Sure. But whites graced the ground floor of the theater and the balcony was reserved for blacks. How about a bus ride home? Hop to it. But the blacks were relegated to the rear seats.

I recall a jolting incident that occurred prior to the '60s when I returned to the States for discharge after Army service in Germany. It was in 1957 when Uncle Sam flew me from Frankfurt to Fort Hamilton, outside New York City, where I car-pooled with three other soldiers, one of whom was black, en route to Camp Chaffee, Ark., for separation from the military. Well, things rocked along fine until we stopped for lunch in a town in Missouri, where we were refused service at a restaurant because of our black companion. The three whites were welcome, we were told, but the black fellow wasn't. That nit-picking prompted picnicking, with the four of us opting for a convenience store repast, and relishing it.

All of the above is small potatoes, though, compared to the experience of Dr. Ron Barnes, a long-time Prescott resident who, as a young white educator, applied for a teaching job at an all-black university in Tuskegee, Ala., in the summer of 1964 during the height of civil unrest in the nation. He was accepted as a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, and he and his family - his wife, Betsy, and their children, aged 5 and 7 - lived in the black community over a six-week period during his teaching tenure.

Those of you who are acquainted with Dr. Barnes know him to be a person who simply oozes with humanity and fair-mindedness. And taking on the Tuskegee task during that heated era, along with its inherent concerns and even dangers, was a decision not to be taken lightly. After all, during their stay there they saw the ruins of the town's only black-owned shopping center that the Ku Klux Klan had just burned down and, just for good measure, the Klan also torched Tuskegee's only integrated high school that was slated to open in the fall. Despite the ongoing madness, though, Ron and Betsy recall finding the people, both black and white, to be pleasant and accommodating.

Both the good and the bad of their experience is laid out in a riveting 57-minute documentary titled "Go South! - Remembering the Civil Rights Struggles of the '60s" that a local crew filmed in July 2007. Providing the commentary are Ron and Betsy, their daughter Lisa, and two Prescott blacks who played significant roles in that period of U.S. history - Lou Burrell, a one-time Catholic priest in Chicago, and Gwen Calhoun, who taught art at Yavapai College and was recognized by former governor Napolitano with a "Gwen Calhoun Day" proclamation.

I have merely touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg in this column, but the complete story is yours for viewing in free showings of the documentary at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 5, at the Prescott Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 945 Rancho Vista Drive, off Copper Basin Road.

There will be a reception between showings for the public to meet the participants, to be followed by showings on Channel 13 beginning the week of April 5.

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