Rodney L. Hurst Sr. has worked as a civil right activist for sixty-one years. His initial involvement with NAACP’s youth council led him to organize sit-ins at several downtown Jacksonville, Florida lunch counters during the 60s and 70s. The fight for equality and the subsequent and infamous Ax Handle Saturday are detailed in his memoir, It Was Never about a Hot Dog and a Coke®!
On May 26th Mr. Hurst and I discussed civil rights and advocacy. Unfortunately, his words are still timely.
KG: Your book describes racial oppression and police brutality from decades ago. Has anything changed?
KG: Nothing at all?
RH: I mean based on what we’re seeing today, we had instances of police brutality years ago, back in the 50s and 60s. We did not have pictures and videos. So, it was your word against ours. And they were agents of the courts, and after all they were white. So, all of those complaints were dismissed. It didn’t make a difference what you said. This did not happen. As you see what’s happening in the news today, very little has changed from years ago. All of that is the same. But now, because of video cameras, pictures and telephones, people are beginning to capture some of those images.
KG: What do you think people can do today other than take pictures and videos?
RH: First of all, the civil rights movement does not change. It is a marathon in the ongoing journey. You have to do whatever you can, organized or not.
KG: Do you think people believed the civil rights movement was over?
RH: Sure. Because when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed and the Civil Rights Act of ’68 passed. Aha! You know? We can sit back and rest. And then here comes Nixon and the Southern Strategy after Goldwater.
KG: So what do we do?
RH: That’s always a question. What do we do to fight?
KG: Right. Especially, when it seems nothing’s going to happen.
RH: If you feel like nothing is going to happen, and to get real philosophical, it’s just like living life…
KG: Then you’re already defeated?
RH: Yeah. If everything’s so ordinary, nothing’s going to happen to me, then why live? The struggle and the fight are so simple. Basically, you’re saying I want the same thing you promised in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Why is it that I have to deal with all of these things based on the hue of my skin?
One of the first things I’m in favor of doing is called telling the history right and the inclusion of black people in history. When you pick up a history textbook and you cannot read about any of the contributions any of your ancestors made, the playing field is not even. Yet, I can pick up a history book and read about the contributions of white Americans and Europeans.
KG: That’s a good point, but today, teachers have set textbooks and they’re dealing with almost zero autonomy. They have to be careful about what they teach, what they say, and how they say it. What would you say to them?
RH: The question then is, if you don’t teach American history and include the contributions I made, then why should I be interested in American history?
KG: Do you think it’s a matter of being more courageous?
RH: It was then. Today, it’s just a matter of teaching the truth.
KG: Do you think educators have to be courageous to teach the truth?
RH: Maybe, if teaching the truth requires courage. If you feel inhibited and afraid to teach the truth, then yeah it takes courage. But when you don’t teach the truth, then how can you teach an honest American history? So if teaching dishonest American history is okay, and you can teach it with no pushback, then what happens to your integrity as a teacher when you know what you’re teaching is dishonest and incomplete?
KG: What about non-teachers? What can they do?
RH: Sometimes you have to find out what works for you. A lot of my friends joined the youth council because everyone knew membership lists were not public. Many of them wanted to sit in, but their parents wouldn’t allow it. They did other things. They did not shop downtown.
KG: Okay. So they still protested in a way?
RH: Yes. Another example is a good friend of mine who’s a Quaker. To this day she does not eat table grapes because of Cesar Chavez and does not drink Coke products because Coke used to support the apartheid regime of South Africa. And that’s what she did, small things.
KG: Even to this day, she does those things?
RH: To this day…
KG: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
RH: You know I hear a lot of people say, “Where are the Martin Luther Kings?” You are the Martin Luther King. You know? Don’t wait for someone to pick up and lead you.