Bay area residents reflect on local civil rights movement

9:18 PM, Jan 18, 2010   |    comments
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Video: Part 2: Bay area residents reflect on local civil rights

St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field had a segregated section before the civil rights movement.

St. Petersburg, Florida - The United States has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement. St. Petersburg residents Lounell Britt, who is black, and Diane West, who is white remember that time well.

Britt says, "I knew about the colored drinking fountains downtown and I knew when we went downtown there were certain stores where you didn't try on things."

There were special rules in those days for blacks, like at Al Lang Field, where there was a special colored section. Britt adds, "You knew those things didn't feel good and they weren't right."

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Jim Crow laws meant there was a color line that separated blacks from whites in public places.

Britt says, "The Plaza theater was downtown - in fact it was called La Plaza and upstairs it had a balcony and that's where all of the blacks sat when they went to the movies downtown."

Diane West moved to St. Petersburg from Michigan when she was a young girl. She says in Michigan she lived mostly in a "white world." She says she was shocked by the degree of segregation in St. Petersburg. "It was all so foreign to me."

She says in St. Petersburg, the family's cook, Ella, became a second mother to her when her own mom passed away. "My brother-in-law said, 'Ella can I give you a ride home?' and she said, 'Oh, that'd be nice.' Well he went out and opened the front door and Ella said, 'Oh no, I have to sit in the back seat.' "

West remembers another surprising encounter when she started riding the city bus to get to work at Sunken Gardens.

"I noticed that black people had to sit in the back, even if the bus was half empty in the front and full in the back. They would have to stand up and I thought this was the dumbest thing I've ever seen."

Across the country, blacks were starting to demand fair treatment and Britt was one of them. She says, "I can remember being a college student and making a decision to get on the bus and sit wherever we wanted to sit. I was scared. I can remember putting my money in the box and being so nervous."

Britt would go on to take part in sit ins at lunch counters in St. Petersburg while Diane West worked behind one of the counters at Central Plaza.

West says, "My manager told me I couldn't wait on them. Nobody ever insulted them or anything. I just couldn't wait on them."

While many of the protests in St. Petersburg may have been peaceful, unrest was bubbling over. While the deadly violence across the country claimed countless lives, Britt says St. Petersburg was different, "St. Petersburg wasn't like a Mississippi or Alabama. It really was kind of a laid back city."

Still, Britt understood the danger. She says, "You knew it was a dangerous time. It was a frustrating time, but Dr. Martin Luther King preached non-violence and many of us tried to do that. I remember reading about the bus bombings in other places and saying to myself, 'Thank God I don't live there.' "

In 1964 Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act and that meant places like the La Plaza Theater where just a day earlier Britt and others protested was now integrated. Britt says, "And we went back the next day and they sold us tickets."

But in other parts of the country, the violence escalated and King himself was assassinated. Britt will never forget that day on April 4, 1968. "I remember walking home having heard about his death and crying."

While King's dream continues, Britt says racism still exists.
"Some people have to feel good about themselves by putting other people down either because of the color of their skin, or what country they come from, or what language they speak."

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