VALDOSTA — In the late 1940s, a young black boy boarded a bus headed from Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama.
The boy, a 10-year-old named Floyd, was joined by a church group, and his seat companion was an elderly woman in her 80s. During the trip, she leaned over and told him she had to use the restroom.
Floyd jumped out of his seat and relayed the message to the bus driver. After the bus stopped right across the Alabama line, the young boy got off the bus and bounded across the street to the nearest gas station.
Pushing open the door, he came across four white men gathered around a card table and asked for a restroom for the woman waiting back at the bus.
“We ain’t got no ... restrooms,” Floyd said one of the men, a big, burly brute chewing a fat cigar, replied.
“But she’s an old lady,” Floyd protested.
The big man took the cigar from his mouth, set it on the table, stood up and walked over until he was towering over the child.
Placing his hefty hand in the pit of Floyd’s stomach, he pushed the boy out the door and right up against the gas pumps in one shove. Floyd slid to the ground, the grit and grime of the pump ruining the new blue suit his mother had just bought him.
After picking himself back up, his eyes traveled back to the bus. He saw a group of black people, eyes wide open but frozen in fear.
He decided right then he didn’t want to be like the big brute or like the people on the bus. He didn’t want to be fearful or hateful.
But years later, in 1961 when Floyd Rose was a young man of 23, he tried to get into Texas’ Abilene Christian College, but was denied because of his skin color.
“I never will forget, I went into the president’s office (and said), ‘I want you to tell me why I can’t go to school here,’” Rose said. “If it’s because I’m dirty, I can wash. If it’s because I’m poor, (somebody) has already made arrangements. But if it’s because I’m black, there’s nothing I can do about that.
“He didn’t say anything. He just wrung his hands and shuffled his feet and he looked up at me and said, ‘Floyd I’m sorry.’”
After that, a hatred did swell within Rose.
“I didn’t hate him; I didn’t hate white people. I hated me because I accepted as valid the unspoken reason for my rejection, which was my blackness,” Rose said.
“So I hated me. I hated my black skin. I hated my kinky hair, my thick lips, my big nose. I hated everything about me.”
But after some time passed, he realized his blackness wasn’t the problem, but rather other people’s attitudes toward blacks.
Referencing the Golden Rule found in the Bible, Rose said he discovered that before he could love others he had to first fall in love with himself, which he promptly did.
But when the Rev. Rose came to South Georgia in 1995, he was still haunted by the blatant racism he had experienced in his early years. Those experiences forced him to a personal resolution that he, now 78, has lived by all his life.
“I decided I would never let white people buy me and I would never let blacks boss me. I would be true to what I believed in, which was the principles of Jesus Christ: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Rose said.
Rose has dedicated his life to that principle. He has rubbed shoulders with the giants of the Civil Rights Movement — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks — and has marched and protested across the country in the name of equality.
But today’s world is a far cry from the one where a hateful white man assaulted a 10-year-old black boy for wanting to find a restroom.
Today, black people drive freely by cotton fields where their ancestors were forced to toil as slaves. Today, a black man won’t be lynched for just whistling at a white woman and black children don’t have to face the injustice of a segregated education.
Black voters don’t have to fear being turned away at polls for failing an impossibly difficult test. Black families can go to sleep without wondering if they will awake in the night to a flaming cross planted in their front yard.
But black history is not just a thing of the past. The history of black America is being written every day. It is an unfinished story, a half-made tapestry of human experience, that is still being created.
Now, black leaders say their race faces other issues: police brutality, racial profiling, negative stereotypes in the media, lack of diversity in positions of power, and dated mindsets that lead to sometimes subtle, sometimes deadly discrimination.
All are remnants of a not-so-distant past for a country that failed to uphold for an entire race one of its most cherished and sacred values: being a place where all are created equal.
In the SunLight Project’s coverage area — Dalton, Tifton, Moultrie, Milledgeville, Thomasville and Valdosta, Ga., along with Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., and the surrounding counties — black leaders agree that while America has progressed significantly in civil rights and race relations, the nation still has a long way to go in reaching the standard of equality for all.
In the 1950s and 1960s, for much of the population in the South, the line was drawn. Invisible, immovable and not subject to debate — what W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed "The Color Line" was a fact of life.
In a public movie theater, black patrons paid the same admission price but could only sit in the balcony. There were restaurants where they clearly weren't welcome, at least not inside. They could buy a plate standing outside at the window, though.
Schools were separate but anything but equal. Growing up in that environment, Dale Williams was exposed vividly to both sides of that line. Nowhere was it more noticeable than when his family traveled west to visit relatives.
From Southwest Georgia to Kentucky, segregation was strictly enforced. Then, at Covington, Ky., at the confluence of the the Ohio and Licking rivers, things changed.
"We'd ride the Trailways bus to Covington on the back of the bus," said Williams, 65, who recently retired after a 41-year career with the city of Moultrie.
"I could sit where I wanted to on the bus (out west). When I was coming back, it was reversed.”
Due to such experiences, Williams said he realized "there was a better world out there.”
A few years later, it wasn't integration that drew him to march, and spend days in jail, but the obvious difference in the quality of the education the different races received depending on which side of the line they were born.
Books were hand-me-downs and out of date, and facilities were severely inadequate.
In an effort to receive the same quality education as white peers across town, at the age of 14, Williams, along with dozens of other black students, marched and went to jail in 1965.
Challenged to give an account of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, many Americans could perhaps name Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., maybe the Selma-to-Birmingham march. But the movement wasn't restricted to the national front.
In dozens, perhaps hundreds, of towns and cities, young black people were inspired to demand the same things their white counterparts took for granted.
Like Williams, other black students wanted to receive the same education in their neighborhood that white students could get in theirs.
In Dalton, when the Emery Street School opened its doors in 1886, it was the city’s first public school and its first school for black students.
"Back then, white kids went to private schools or they were schooled at home," said Curtis Rivers, a graduate of the Emery Street School and now director of the Emery Center, a black heritage and multicultural center.
The original school building burned in 1909, and for the next 15 years, black students were educated in local churches. The school was rebuilt in 1924 and continued to educate black students until 1967, when Dalton Public Schools were integrated. The Emery Center is now housed in part of the building.
Local schools often bring students through the center on tours to learn more about Dalton's history.
"We try to tell them what things were like back then, when the city was still segregated, and they just can't grasp it," Rivers said. "Things are so different for them.”
The family of Dalton resident Minnie Marsh lived in Hawaii for two years before she was born in 1950, and her mom described the island as a different world compared to the South of the mid-1900s, where skin color was everything.
"There was no segregation (in Hawaii),” Marsh said. “Their neighbor on one side was Japanese. The neighbor across the street was Korean. The neighbor on the other side was white.”
Growing up in Dalton, things were not the same for Marsh. She attended an all-black school until 10th grade, when the schools integrated. At her new school, Dalton High, Marsh said the atmosphere was great.
“We were all there as one. Black and white and Asian. Christians and Jews," she said. “I have to give a lot of credit to our principal, Charles Bowen. He was the most humanitarian person. He treated everyone the same way, and he prepared the parents, the students, everyone involved, and it worked beautifully.”
Decades later, after graduating college and becoming a teacher, Marsh made history by getting elected to the Dalton Board of Education in 1995. She was the first black person elected to any office in the city’s history.
"It really didn't feel like I was making history. That really didn't sink in until later," he said. "When I ran, I wasn't running as a black person. I was running because I felt that as an educator I had the background and knowledge to do a good job on the board.”
It would be another 20 years before the city elected its first black city council member.
Taylor McGrew, a member of Lafayette County’s school board, said while growing up in a segregated community in North Florida, his mother cooked in a restaurant that he couldn’t enter. Black people were not allowed to park on Main Street and had separate entrances.
“I’ve been shot at for walking on a sidewalk,” McGrew said. “When I was 8 or 9, there was a sidewalk next to a house of a very racist man. He had told me and my friend not to walk on his sidewalk.
"On the way to town, we walked on the sidewalk to get out of the road. On the way back, he was in the backyard with a rifle and he started shooting. He wasn’t trying to hit us I don’t think. He was shooting up in the air. It scared us.
“It seems like almost two lifetimes when I think back on it and when I think about now,” McGrew said. “I wouldn’t change it because it made me a better person.”
Black leaders say America today is a mix of good and bad when it comes to civil rights.
On one hand, there are many things to celebrate. On the other, many injustices still stand unresolved.
Alonzo Philmore is the president of the Suwannee Valley NAACP. When he was 14 years old, Philmore asked to borrow his mother’s ’67 Chevy Bel-Air and drove it down to St. Augustine, Fla., to march with Martin Luther King Jr.
When he returned home, his father was furious with him, but his mother defended him, saying he did what he had to do.
Philmore said he’s always had a strong urge to fight for the underdog. He also has a strong sense of right and wrong. His mother taught him to only judge a person by their actions and the way they treat people.
“We were taught not to hate anybody, no matter what,” Philmore said. “But my mother said, ‘If somebody calls you a name, keep walking. If they put their hand on you, bring me the hand.’”
In the 11th grade, Philmore remembers another student calling him the N-word. That didn’t bother him until he spit on Philmore. Then, the principal had to pull him off the other boy.
Since then, Philmore said there have been long strides in race relations. People treat each other with more respect, he said. He still gets called the N-word every now and then, but it’s not publicly accepted like it used to be.
Current tensions mostly deal with equality, Philmore said. As president of the NAACP, he sees inequality every day.
He sees it in the predominantly minority areas of town, where the roads are falling apart and the sewers are emptying filth into the street. He sees it when more black children are arrested than white children for the same offense, due to a lack of awareness and understanding of the law.
Sandra Williams, a leader in the black community of Live Oak and Suwannee County, Fla., said there have been some strides in race relations as far as elected officials go.
There are at least some black representatives in the county, city and school board, she said. There is also more equal opportunity for minorities, other than blacks, in the work place.
“Is it as good as I would like to see it? No,” Williams said. “There is still a long way to go, but it is definitely better than it used to be. Not that that’s a high bar.”
Williams said the tensions in communities mostly stem from crime. She said the black communities have a tense relationship with the police and because of that there is a lot of black-on-black crime that never gets solved.
Melissa Hughes, Tift County commissioner, said despite the progress, recent trends make her feel race relations are churning in reverse.
“It’s 2017 and we’re still having issues where we have police brutality,” Hughes said. “We’re blessed that it hasn’t happened in Tift County, but could it happen?
“Would we know how to handle an isolated instance? I don’t think we’re prepared. I hope we never have to. I hope that we are so connected together that it would never get to that point, but I’m sure those other cities thought the same thing.
“It is really sad that my grandchildren have to hear that a young black man has been shot and killed by someone that they look to to protect them.
“When are the water hoses and the dogs going to come back out? My grandchildren should be reading about this in history books; they shouldn’t be part of it.”
Isabella Brooks, president of Colquitt County’s NAACP, has seen a lot of dramatic and positive change in her lifetime, from better education to the nation's first black president.
"To have a black president, it was awesome," Brooks, 78, said. "I never thought it would happen in my lifetime, but it did. I was proud to see it. He wasn't perfect, but he did some good.”
Dalton’s Minnie Marsh said her children’s friends are proof the city has made tremendous progress.
"When I was in school, the city was primarily black and white," she said. "But my kids went to public school. I think my children really opened my eyes to the world. My son would bring six of his friends home, and one is white, one is Asian, one is Hispanic.
“I've seen (in) Dalton what my mom and dad experienced when they were living in Hawaii."
While this history of change is vivid for those who lived — and often fought — through the Civil Rights Movement, those struggles are not so familiar to the youth of today.
February has been designated Black History Month, but Brooks said the history of all races should be a part of school curriculum throughout the school year.
Du Bois, the scholar and co-founder of the NAACP who pushed the recognition of what began as Negro History Week nearly 70 years ago, described the effort as "necessary spiritual equipment for making this country worth living in.”
For him, it was important to share black history with all Americans to make them aware of stories and accomplishments because a "lack of understanding is dangerous.”
Black history as a one-month block carved out and separate from the rest of the nation’s history may not be the best way to spread that message these days, Brooks said.
"Our history ought to be acknowledged. It happened. I feel it should be a part of the (whole) history,” Brooks said.
Teaching black history well is key to giving the nation an accurate picture of who black people are, said Dr. Veronica Womack, chief diversity officer for Georgia College in Milledgeville.
“In the minds of many people, (African-Americans) are a big population of folks, but that’s not actually the case. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population,” Womack said. “It’s a larger population in (some Southern communities), but there are some communities where there are very few.
“Some people rarely have the opportunity to interact with an African-American person, so they have to rely on television, which is filled with stereotypes, so it’s important for people to get a real understanding of the African-American experience in the United States.”
Yvonne Bryant of Hamilton County, Florida, said she doesn’t see racial tension in her lifelong hometown of White Springs.
“Everyone seems to get along here,” Bryant said.
She attended an all-black school up through middle school, then transferred to Hamilton County High School right after it was integrated.
While there was some tension at that time, it was quickly handled, she said.
After graduating in 1974, she went on to become the first the first black clerk typist and criminal deputy clerk in the community. She was recently awarded the Beautiful Dreamer Award at the White Springs Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 16.
The Rev. Jeremy Rick of Thomasville said his city has always treated him well, but noted that racial tensions still exist, even if they aren’t often seen locally.
He said some Thomasville residents do not understand that black lives matter or what it is like being treated as a second-class citizen, a reality that people should not accept.
"We should join that protest," the pastor said. "The journey for civil rights has benefitted all Americans.
“People should be on the side of those who are marginalized or oppressed. There is always room for improvement — even at home."
One resounding suggestion emerges when black leaders give their solutions for creating a better future for black Americans and the nation as a whole: Blacks and whites should increase dialogue, reach across the racial divide, see and hear each other as humans and understand that equality is something all races should fight for.
Suwannee County’s Sandra Williams organized the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade and following events. During the event, she hoped for a more integrated crowd and more diverse participation. She said both sides, black and white, need to come together to bridge the ever-widening gap.
“At every event, you can expect to see black floats and people walking in the parade, from Christmas on the Square to homecoming, and they can’t come out for Martin Luther?” Williams said. “He did more for this country than just help black people. Everyone should be able to stand behind that.”
Both sides need to be more inclusive, encouraging and inviting, Williams said. There needs to be a change in mindset.
“This county, this country, is facing a lot of challenges,” Williams said. “We can’t do it alone. We need to address them together.”
For Alonzo Philmore, the challenges in improving race relations are mental. People need to put aside their biases and come together, he said.
“You look at kids in kindergarten,” Philmore said. “Do you see them treat each other different? They just play. They don’t know one from the other. It’s only later that they start to learn to hate each other.”
When it comes to improving race relations, Lafayette County’s Taylor McGrew agrees the change has to happen internally.
“God is going to have to change a person’s heart,” McGrew said. “Back then, racism was very overt. People didn’t hide it. Now it is still there, but it is not as open and to me that is worse.”
He said people need to get past what is being shown on media.
“We have to look at individual relationships within your own community and not let nationally what’s going on influence our hearts,” McGrew said. “I think that starts with your belief in God and that he is in control.
“I think this community is a community of good people. I hope we have gotten to the point where we don’t look at race, culture or anything, [but] just look at a person and their character and heart.”
Tift County’s Melissa Hughes said in regards to police brutality, understanding before acting is essential.
“One thing I want the black community to understand is that all police officers are not bad. One thing that I would like for police officers to understand is that all black people don’t deserve to be shot down and killed,” Hughes said.
“All of us have to look at what we’re doing to make our country better. If we say that we’re going to be here together, we need to learn how to work together.”
Valdosta’s Rev. Rose said the city’s police department is proof that increased dialogue has an impact. Unlike other places in the country, Valdosta doesn’t have a problem with police brutality, Rose said.
He credits Police Chief Brian Childress for bringing a lasting peace between the police and the community through his efforts to ensure the law applies to everyone equally. Rose said since Childress took over as chief, there hasn’t been one substantiated complaint of police brutality in the city.
‘The Conscience of America’
Milledgeville’s Veronica Womack works only a couple blocks away from where Georgia leaders voted to secede from the Union in 1861. The radical difference between then and now reveals something of note, Womack said.
“I think one of the proudest lessons you can learn is the resilience of a group of people through the opportunity that our country can provide,” she said. “Through extraordinary circumstances, African-American people have been able to overcome and lead lives that their ancestors could only imagine, that could only be made possible in a country like this.
“Through the African-American experience, you really see the dreams and the hopes of all American people. That’s the importance of black history.
“I like to say black people are the conscience of America, because we really hold true to the notion that everybody is created equal, and that you can be what you want to be. There are opportunities out there, you just have to reach out and grab them.”
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Thomas Lynn, Charles Oliver, Eve Guevara, Alan Mauldin and Patti Dozier, along with the writer, team leader John Stephen. Will Woolever also contributed to the report.
To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.