Home » People & Culture » Shadows of the Past

Shadows of the Past

This is a story I like to tell, and it seems appropriate on Dr. King Day.  It’s hard for those of us too young to remember “how it was” to understand the progress we have made – and how important Dr. King’s legacy is. 

The rumor spread down Flagler Street with a sense of urgency.  Miami was a city of rumors, each of us trying to stay ahead of the latest in unrest.  There was a way these things came through, a procedure.  It came to me in broken Spanglish, filling the pause between the order of Café Cubano and the exchange of money.  “They found the shadows yesterday.  I think they’ll just leave it.”  I wasn’t sure exactly what they were talking about, but I knew it was exciting.  “It was the old Colored fountain.”  What?

segregated-water-fountainsAt lunch I made it down to Burdines to see it for myself.  The first floor had fashionable Guayaberas and men’s suits up in front, but it was at the back of the store that the crowd gathered.  I made my way through to find a stillness, a solemn hush as if the speed of the rumor left a vacuum behind.  Wending through the crowded moment I was able to see the flaked black paint on the concrete wall, the letters firm and bold as if still terribly important:


Workmen had taken down a partition and found on the wall behind that word in black stencil, down and to the right of the word WHITE.  The outline of plumbing long disconnected ran underneath the words and gave them a meaning, a purpose told in the larger unit for whites and the tiny receptacle for colored.

The force of this scene kept the crowd quiet, shoving language back inside with a hard swallow.  The times, long ago, really did go down like this.  It really did happen this way.  All those stories, they were true.  It wasn’t as though we doubted how it went was, it was simply so far outside of what we could possibly understand.  But here it was, the shadows of that era, still on the wall.

I looked around and noticed something else strange about that moment.  I shared it with people who were mostly my age, about 20, that day in 1986.  I did my best to spread the rumor, in the culturally require way, but when I told older people they didn’t particularly care.  They’d seen this, after all.  Those of us who had never seen it before were the only ones captivated.

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

On this Martin Luther King Day just ahead of the second inaugural of our first African-American President, we have a special celebration.  We weren’t kidding about creating opportunity for all.  Dr King didn’t make it to the Promised Land himself, but he pointed us the way.  How can we honor him without at least acknowledging the oppression he was struggling against?

That’s the problem, after all.  Our world has changed, changed to be much more like the dream he told us about before I was even born.  I was lucky enough to have seen the shadows on the wall, the remnants of that terrible time, so I know what the arc of my life has brought.  It’s been pretty good, after all.

The shadows may haunt those who are a bit older than I am, but I see them as nothing more than shadows.  I’m glad to have seen them because the force of their presence burned into my memory is humbling.  Those old stories are true.  It really did go down that way.

More importantly, we got where we are now because people made it happen.  Without that, understanding the scope of our progress, from shadows to ballots to the next wave of empowerment, is nearly impossible.  Lord help us, it was all a terrible struggle.  But it was worth it.

Thank you, Dr. King.

12 thoughts on “Shadows of the Past

  1. I remember those signs and water fountains in Florida in the 60s. Seemed very strange…don’t suppose I grasped the evil that lay behind it.

    I’m just old enough, I suppose, to remember the hate that existed towards Martin King in the US mainstream. The pleasure so many took in his murder. Then, after he was about 20 years safely dead, he started to be memorialized in the US corporate community. But that didn’t stop the same people from bad-mouthing Jesse Jackson, etc. It appears that for challengers and troublemakers to be honored in the mainstream, they need to have been dead for a while.

    To me, this is the message of ML King day. To realize we need to honor those leaders, prophets, trouble-makers who are active now, and being spied on and harassed by cops, thrown out of their homes, demonized in the corporate media, imprisoned in a growing police state. They need our support now, not when they are 20 years safely dead. But WE need them, alive and free and working, even more.

    • Thank you, Alan. We’ve come to far to not keep the momentum. There’s always more to do, but progress has been made. More to the point, we have proof that progress is always possible.

  2. A great story, thank you. It was a long time ago but you can see how racism is still alive today in the tea party. It doesn’t die easy.

    • Thank you. Yes, we see far too much racism these days, although people don’t show it as openly as they used to. Instead there’s this careful dance around the topic that has to be done. Hard to say if the bad old days weren’t better in some ways – at least no one could deny what the problem was.

  3. Erik, thanks for sharing this story. I either don’t recall your telling this back in H.S. or I missed it.

    • Hey, Matt! This was in 1986 when I was interning with FP&L downtown during the summer away from Carnegie. Getting an engineering degree makes you eligible for interesting gigs sometimes – in this case, I got to understand power distribution. Was fun. A lot of great stories from that bizarre town. 🙂

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