Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Black History Month: Fighting Quietly

By Bill Cunnigham

Hello Readers:


In the wake of Black History Month, it is not only important that we discuss the prominent African Americans but also the “unknown’ African Americans that have helped paved the way for others to succeed today, like Retired Lieutenant John White who was one of the first black Police Officers on the Savannah Police Department. 

By caring that heavy burden of being one of the first African Americans, Lieutenant John White, who was one of the “First Nine Black Officers” to be employed by the Savannah Police Department in 1947.  HIS ACT AND STRUGGLES paved the way for so many other blacks both male and female.
 During an interview in February 17, 2010, with Savannah Morning News, “Lt. White reflected on his days patrolling a city where the color of one’s skin dictated what level of justice one would apply”.

(photo by Savannah Morning News)

In Atlanta, Georgia, Claude Dixon, one of the first eight black police officers appointed to serve in 1948 said, “When we took our oath, all of us had to stand up there and say, -“I do solemnly swear as nigger policemen that I will uphold the segregation laws of the City of Atlanta.”

(photo by unknown)

Said statement was countered by Former Police Chief Herbert Jenkins of Atlanta, who stated the following: “Black police officers were not required to take an oath any different from that of the white officers”. 

However, did you know that black police officers throughout the country were not allowed to arrest white no matter what crime thy committed?  The officers had to hold the white criminal until a white officer arrived to make the arrest. This continued until the 1960s.  Savannah is one of the oldest black community and through the hardships of slavery, “Jim Crow Laws” and the fight for civil rights, “colored people” as they referred as at that time, founded their own churches, schools and communities in the City of Savannah. 

As I mentioned above, Lt. White is one of the original nine officers hired by the Savannah Georgia Police department, and is now the last surviving member of the “Original Nine” who still resides in the City of Savannah.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and the opportunity to talk with him about his experiences on the Police Department   Lt. White explained to me that when he was hired, he was trained in secret, once the training was completed and he was sworn, it was stipulated that the black officers were forbidden to arrest any white criminals. 

He further explained the hardships he encountered as a black officer in this city during the 1950s.  He recalled the fact that all white officers had patrol vehicles while the black officers had to walk even during the cold winter. 

Lt. White shared with me a particular experience when two white police officers had to give him a ride to headquarters and once he was out of the vehicle, the vehicle was taken to have the inside of it cleaned out because he had been in it.  The gut wrenching feeling he experienced at that particular moment cannot be described, He said, these were officers he knew, officers he worked with and smiled at him, laughed and joked with him but felt he was dirty and not fit to sit in back of their patrol car, merely because of the color of his skin.

(photo by Savannah Morning News)

In spite of everything, Lt. White remained strong, continuously fought battles of discrimination and racism.  During the Civil Rights Movement, he often found himself arresting the very people who were fighting for the civil rights of every African American to include him.  As he explained to me, it was one of the hardest things he had to do, but he also realized that it was his job to treat those protesters with the up most respect and kindness. 

His retirement brought on commendations from Senators and President Ronald Reagan in 1984. When SGT. White retired he was promoted to from Sergeant to Lieutenant. 

Is it better now in law enforcement because of Lt. White’s actions?  YES, it sure is, but there is still much work to be done to eradicate the stench of discrimination that has pledged our country and continues to diminish the quality of life and even end the life of so many good people, like the young Trayvon Martin, who could have been a future doctor with the cure for cancer, another black president, or another astronaut. (the key word here is ANOTHER)

With the election of our first black President, we have seen the resurrection of racial hate groups to indicate that racism is far from dead.  However, there are plenty of African Americans who have achieved because of their hard work, dedication, determination and their willingness to never back down and fight the fight. 

Whenever I talk to my seven year old son and my five year old daughter about the contributions of their people, I cannot only mention the famous and most celebrated African Americans but I also the ones who are not so famous like Lt. John White or my wife’s mentor and friend, Judge Tammy Cox Stokes, who was the first African American Woman to be appointed as Recorder’s Court Judge in Chatham County.

We take our hat off, bow our heads and have a minute of silence in to remember those famous activists that pave the way for future African Americans but let us not forget those that suffered alone in silence. Those who were not cheered for by the thousands but who paid the price, sometimes with their life, so their children and grandchildren could have a better life.  So If you are blessed with someone like Lt. White in your community, which there are at least one in every community, take the time to honor them in your local paper, radio, and/or T.V. but most of all honor them with your work and when you see them, tell them thank you for a Job well down.  

"The Original Nine: Pioneers of Law Enforcement"

Lt John White;Retired Officer Alexander Bryant, Jr.;
Howard Davis;
Milton Hall;
Stepney Houston;
Frank Mullino;
James Nealey;
Leroy Wilson.

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