Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Ocoee: Justice Delayed Finally Arrives – Part II

[Continued from Part I]

Passing Through the Refiner’s Fire

Orange County was simply not ready to deal with its history the night in 1998 the Democracy Forum first held up the mirror for Ocoee to see its then 78 year old Shadow.

But things change, even in an Orange County with a once virulently racist past. The county in which the Ku Klux Klan felt free to parade in city streets by torch light a mere century ago is now just under 41% white non-Hispanic in composition. Those of African descendance now make up nearly one quarter of the population.

Ocoee, which just elected its first person of color to its City Commission in 2016, is today a diverse city its ancestors could have scarcely conceived of. The US Census report of 2017 estimates the population of Ocoee to be just above 50% white, non-Hispanic.

However, demographic changes alone do not do the hard work of owning a collective Shadow. Embracing a bloody past rooted in a racism which has abated in its virulence but never completely gone away is the stuff of hard work, of gut checks, of conscience wrestling, of letting go of worldviews that oriented their holders to what they saw as reality.

All of those very human behaviors were on display last week as the Ocoee City Commission engaged in an act of repentance, redemption and resurrection. Its Mayor, Rusty Johnson, a white man emerging from the simmering stew of Southern racism in which many of us here were raised, issued a proclamation that acknowledged the dark events of November 1920 and asserted that they would never happen again here or anywhere else.

The proclamation designates November 2 as a day of solemn commemoration in Ocoee and reflects the Council’s decision to place a state historical marker in its civic plaza to remember those events and to inform those who do not know of them. It is scheduled to be dedicated Nov. 2, 2020, the one hundredth anniversary of the Election Day Massacre.

While the proclamation could have been issued by the Mayor alone, it was striking that he took the initiative to have the entire Commission vote on the proclamation. It passed unanimously. Much like the Brown v. The Board case decided by the 1954 Warren Court, it was essential that the decision makers be recorded as unanimous in their determination to repudiate this history and to vow to head in a new direction. The proclamation explicitly rejected its history as a “sundown town” and embraced a new identity as a “sunrise city” marked by diversity and acceptance.

The people of Ocoee have done some remarkable soul-searching. It is not easy to first embrace and then distance oneself from a history that implicates one’s town and one’s ancestors in terrible acts. No doubt, not every Ocoee resident shares the willingness to do so. But this event took courage, the leaders of Ocoee proving willing to pass through the refiner’s fire. The end result, noted by Bill Maxwell, the African-American voice of the Diversity Board, was a measure of redemption.

All of them are to be commended.

Prophetic Action

“For he has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

It would be easy to tell this story and focus only on the official, historical aspects of this event. Some historians are prone to do so. But when you are an eyewitness to history being made, your perspective is a little more fleshed out, a little more immediate,  than mere dates, names and events can convey.

When the vote on the proclamation was complete, the Commission opened the floor to speakers to respond to their action. What followed was one of the most remarkable events of my life.

The Mayor would begin the process of truth telling, offering his own story of how he came to recognize the need for this proclamation. Much of it centered around the voyage with his Diversity Board to the opening of the EJI Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. But the Mayor referenced his faith, citing scriptures from Hebrew and Christian sources, evidencing how the faith expressed therein inspired the faithful to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with G_d.” (Micah 6:8)

Thereafter, speaker after speaker rose to relate their responses to this action. Some of the descendants of families who lost their homes and their loved ones related the pain of unacknowledged suffering, of seeing a once vibrant history simply erased as if it had never happened. One of them pointedly responded to the Commission: “I accept your apology.”

What resulted was an eruption of justice, mercy and humility that was striking in its similarities to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made famous by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa. As the speakers told of their pain from years of injustice, the Commission and audience, including some descendants of those who had caused that pain, listened attentively, some dabbing their eyes.

All around me, people wept tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of redemption. And at that moment, with tears in my own eyes, I realized how incredibly privileged I was to be present for this incredible event where truths were spoken and reconciliation sought.

Hard Work Still Ahead

For many of us who have been working toward this day, the proclamation was both a bit of a surprise even as it was a wonderful affirmation of the hard work so many have done over the past four decades. 

The heavy lifting on this project was done by the Diversity Board of Ocoee whose work for two decades was praised at the commission meeting. They, in turn, had been brought into being as a result of two groups that began the initial work toward owning this Shadow beginning in the late 1980s, the Democracy Forum and the West Orange Reconciliation Task Force.

The local Orange County Task Force of the Equal Justice Initiative which last spring dedicated its new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery was also instrumental in this accomplishment. For the past two years placing a marker in Ocoee has been a primary goal. Seeing it soon to be realized is heart-warming. Recognizing that the achievement of that placement ultimately came from within Ocoee itself is even more so.

The work of the Task Force is not completed, however. Our soil collections from the sites of the massacre in Ocoee and the lynchings in Orlando will soon be placed on display in the museum in Montgomery. We are working out the details on placing markers in Orlando to mark the two lynchings there we have been able to document, one of them July Perry.

We are also hard at work developing our many town hall forums across the region into an educational-curricula for local schools. Our children must know their heritage, ALL of it. Toward that end, the task force is overseeing a scholarship essay competition at five of the Orange County high schools. 

Finally, its collection of artifacts and documentary evidence will soon form the basis for an exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center during 2020, the centennial year of the massacre. It will also provide the materials for traveling exhibits for events across the state.

Much hard work lies before us. But for this day, I am deeply grateful. It is the first step toward a justice too long delayed which has finally begun to arrive.

EJI-OTF soil collection, possible lynching site of July Perry, Orlando


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Ocoee: Justice Delayed Finally Arrives – Part I

“This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’"  Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" 16 April 1963

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Theodore Parker, 1850, restated by Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956

Last Tuesday, history was made in a once small town with a very dark history. In Ocoee, a now burgeoning suburb of Orlando, the City Commission unanimously voted in favor of a proclamation recognizing an atrocity that had occurred there and vowing it would never happen again.

A Deadly, Destructive Frenzy

The Ocoee Massacre occurred nearly 100 years ago just a couple of miles from the sprawling lakeside municipal services complex where the commission convened. The gleaming structures fronting a nearby lake with its sparkling fountain are a stark contrast to the grim events of nearly a century ago when a moral panic whipped the then small citrus town into a deadly, destructive frenzy. 

On Nov. 2, 1920, two African-American men attempted to vote in the presidential election in Ocoee. They had been encouraged by a white Republican appointed federal judge who hoped to make political inroads in a Solid South whose local Democratic hegemony was the public face of the Ku Klux Klan.

Ultimately, the men were prevented from voting by poll officials. They cited Florida’s Jim Crow laws passed to nullify the effects of the 15th Amendment enfranchising former male slaves in the wake of the Civil War.  When the men persisted, one of them was pistol whipped before fleeing the polling place.

 With rumors swirling around town of an impending riot, one of the men, July Perry, would be taken into custody at his home, transported the 10 miles to Orlando and placed in the county jail. Before the night was over, he would be broken out of his jail cell by a white mob, dragged through the streets behind a car, strung from a tree and used for target practice.

Reports of this lynching place it at various sites within Orlando. One of those sites would have located the lynching within sight of the home of one John Moses Cheney, the judge who had encouraged the victim to defy the Jim Crow system and vote.

Responding to Racist Dog Whistles

But the trouble was just beginning in Ocoee. Perry had been taken custody following an altercation at his home in which both Perry and a white police officer had been shot. As local citizens stood in the Wall Street Plaza in downtown Orlando watching election returns posted on a street front display, word swept through the crowd that a racial riot was occurring in Ocoee and all available “volunteers” were called to assemble in Ocoee to help restore “order.”

Racist dog whistles have long been the norm among white Southerners who wish to retain a patina of socially respectability even as they continue to hold racist values and engage in behaviors designed to preserve white male dominance. That practice continues today as was recently observed in the Florida gubernatorial race.  

In the 1920 version of dog whistle speak, “volunteers” essentially meant local Klansmen. A nighttime torch-lit parade of Klansmen had just occurred in the streets of Orlando a couple of weeks before the election to emphasize that no African-American men would vote in that election. It was bad enough that women could no longer be denied the franchise in 1920, following the ratification of the 19th Amendment. References to “order” essentially meant that local white male dominators were not about to give up control without a fight.

Before the night was over, the North Quarters of Ocoee where Perry once lived would be reduced to cinders. Homes, churches and a Masonic Lodge would all be burned to the ground, some with their human occupants still inside. Reports tell of terrified victims fleeing their burning homes only to be shot down in the fields they once tilled. While there are no clear records of casualties, estimates range from 3 to 63 dead that night. 
What is clear is that an entire residential neighborhood of Ocoee vanished overnight. While the nearby South Quarters, another African-American neighborhood, was not razed, its residents would quickly flee Ocoee thereafter leaving behind homes and property, major accomplishments for a people just 50 years removed from a time when some of the older residents had themselves been seen as property.

No African-Americans would vote anywhere in Orange County for another 17 years. And for nearly 70 years thereafter Ocoee would be an all-white town. Should any person of color decide to challenge that, the lore of a hanging tree complete with rope and signs warning them not to let the sun go down on them in that town reinforced a segregation born in atrocity.

“Forget it as soon as possible…”

Human Shadow, both individual and collective, has a way of avoiding conscious confrontation. It is a very human response to the cognitive dissonance that awareness of wrongdoing produces to repress it from active memory. In Orange County the repression of the Ocoee massacre and Perry lynching began almost immediately.  

The day after the worst election day violence in American history, the embers of former homes, churches and two Masonic Lodges in Ocoee were still flickering in the North Quarters. Soil had just begun to settle on the grave of July Perry in Orlando’s historical Greenwood Cemetery. Ironically, that grave would be located just yards away from the eventual gravesite of one of the leaders of the massacre, Colonel Sam Salisbury.

The November 3, 1920 editorial of the Orlando Evening Star called the incidents in Ocoee and downtown Orlando “deplorable.” It advised its readers that “Now that the disturbance in the western section of the county has come to an end, all citizens should forget it as soon as possible.” Two days later the paper would attempt to rationalize that advice with the explanation that “any further investigation would stir up memories better left alone and would only leave an everlasting feeling against them [Negroes] in all Orange.” The use of self-absolving constructs are common in denial.

Clearly the people of Orange County took the advice of the newspaper for many years. Attempts to remember – and thus redeem – the events of 1920 did not even rise to consciousness on any kind of an organized level until the late 1980s. Calling themselves the Democracy Forum, a group of social justice advocates, largely members of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, quickly drew other local activists excited to finally begin unearthing those two nights of horror in Orange County and their aftermath.

With the help of the cemetery sexton, the Forum located the grave of July Perry in Greenwood and paid to have a marble commemorative stone placed on his final resting place. They began to gather a wealth of stories, photos and documentary evidence from newspaper crypts and the files of the NAACP in Jacksonville. They discovered a short story by Zora Neal Hurston about the Ocoee massacre which inadvertently affirmed the local white party line which described the events as a “riot” requiring law enforcement to put it down.

When the Democracy Forum had accrued enough evidence to feel confidence in finally telling its story, it scheduled a public forum. The widely publicized event was held at a Border’s Books set amidst a gleaming modern shopping district complete with mall and theaters within a couple of miles of the killing fields of Ocoee.

By all accounts, it was a tense evening.

“It wasn’t us…Let’s just move on…”

Descendants of the participants in the massacre challenged the use of the term massacre (“Any incident becomes a massacre when more than six people are killed” replied the sociologist from nearby Valencia College). They challenged the death toll which ranges from 3 to 63 depending upon which of the documentary sources one uses, none of which are official in modern terms. The local coroner’s office cannot verify any number higher than three. No doubt that is because many of the dead were burned to death in their homes or buried by their murderers.

But, the more salient responses of the local community to the forum took two directions.

One, it wasn’t us. Many would argue that Klansmen came from miles around to participate in the slaughter of African-Americans, many of whose financial prosperity had begun to challenge their white farming counterparts in the citrus belt of Florida. It was a bit of an ironic twist on the “outside agitators” dismissal of the legitimacy of civil rights actions during the 1960s.

Souvenir postcard from Massacre, found at http://www.caitlinbennettart.com/greetings-from-america

Of course, there was a network of Klansmen, many of whom were local political officials, in Central Florida’s citrus belt. The descendants of plantation owners who had migrated to Florida after the Civil War, it’s hardly surprising that their fear and loathing of the black labor source they saw as both less than fully human and yet essential to their profit-making could have played a role in these events.

But the second direction of resistance to the re-membering of the Ocoee Massacre took a more familiar turn: Why stir all this up now? Let’s just move on. Let bygones be bygones.

This is the stuff of repression and denial. It’s also the stuff of Shadow, dark memories repressed from consciousness which take a life of their own in unconscious psychic sewers, just waiting for a chance to come to life in the form of projections onto vulnerable targets. 

All of this occurred in an Orange County which in 1998 was in the midst of yet another major demographic shift, much like the context of the original events. With local identity up in the air, it’s little wonder this first attempt to bring the events of that awful night to consciousness would prove unsuccessful.

Whatever else it was, Orange County was simply not ready to deal with its history that night.

[continued, Part II]

Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Friday, November 23, 2018

Thanksgiving Reflection: Be Grateful Anyway

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

I have always been moved by the prayer attributed to Mother Teresa which lists a series of challenges we human beings encounter in our daily lives followed by rejoinders to continue engaging them “anyway.” I find the list to be true to my experience and, at times, a badly needed encouragement.

When I looked for the prayer today I discovered that Mother Teresa had adapted an earlier work by Kent Keith, a writer and leader in higher education. The original document was called The Paradoxical Commandments and Keith wrote it when a sophomore at Harvard as part of a book for student leaders entitled The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, (Harvard Student Agencies, 1968). Mother Teresa’s adaptation is a prime example of the maxim that imitation is the highest form of compliment.

Both sets of exhortations can be found at this link.

Gratitude in Times of Trial

The last couple of years have been difficult for me. I have struggled to find direction in retirement even as I have found myself constantly preoccupied with handling my late Father’s estate. I find myself mildly depressed at times and anxious to get on with the next phase of my life.

My knees sometimes give me fits and my diet must constantly be adjusted to meet the needs of this aging body. Francis of Assisi called his body Brother Ass reflecting the medieval dysfunctionality surrounding the human body. But at the end of his life, he apologized to Brother Ass recognizing that it, too, reflected the goodness of the creation and deserved better treatment than he had given it. 

I think I know what Francis meant.

The state of the world often troubles me and the nihilistic tendencies in our current political realities frighten and depress me. My heart grieves for those in the path of a Mother Nature no long willing to tolerate humanity’s ongoing abuse of “this fragile Earth, our island home.” (Eucharistic Prayer C, BCP) I know only too well what it’s like to survive a hurricane that can take away your home and a wildfire that can take away your life. Neither are abstract ideas to me.

And yet, I will begin this day attending a Thanksgiving eucharist at my beloved St. Richard’s parish and later celebrate this festival of gratitude with my combined families of birth and choice who will assemble in our beautiful home this afternoon. The joy of this day wrests me away from my preoccupations with the things that trouble my soul and prompts me to look around myself to  be grateful for the many blessings of my life.

With that realization in mind, I was inspired write my own version of the “anyway” exhortations. I offer it here:

Be Grateful Anyway

We live in a time beset by instability, wars, violence. The world our 24 hour news presents us is full of death and depravity, stories designed to drive up ratings and insure consumer spending desperately seeking to fill the voids in our souls. All of this can produce dread and apprehension. And yet the future is never written aforehand. It is quite possible to persist in hope for better days.

Be grateful anyway.

We live in a time of anthropogenic climate change marked by devastating fires, fierce hurricanes, overwhelming winter storms and ever-growing masses of climate refugees. Some of us wring our hands as sea levels climb and extinction rates accelerate while others zealously guard the bounds of their ideological echo chambers praying to preserve a denial increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of reality. Amidst the tumult, our world remains a place of incredible beauty and more than enough providence for a responsible humanity.

Be grateful anyway.

We live in a time of political turbulence deliberately created by demagogues whose contrived moral panics, driven by irresponsible, profit-seeking mass media, serve to control fearful, poorly informed followers. The image of G-d becomes increasingly difficult to recognize on the face of the Other beneath the fearful caricatures that are drawn of them. And yet our slumbering humanity is beginning to stir and the possibilities for fundamental change even now appear on the horizon.

Be grateful anyway.

We live in a time of demographic change, where the cultures in which many of us grew up and took for granted are fading away, replaced by new realities we have never encountered and do not yet know how to negotiate. Change is often frightening and yet change is the only constant in human history. As the dangers to human survival increasingly come into focus, we may yet learn the vital lesson that we are all, indeed, better together.

Be grateful anyway.

We live in a time where the standard of living for most of our children will not exceed, perhaps not even equal, our own.  Our expectations are disappointed, our sense of what is “normal” violated. We find ourselves disillusioned. And yet, most of us live lives in which our most basic needs are routinely met if not exceeded. And we always remain capable of reconsidering the reasonableness of our expectations.

Be grateful anyway.

We live in a time of increasing inequality where the predatory behaviors of those with power make it possible for them to enjoy ever more privilege at the expense of the powerless. Increasing inequalities almost inevitably become the grounds for social instability. And yet, the power to change that reality remains within our hands. There is always hope.

Be grateful anyway.

We live in a time of information overload and sensory overstimulation leaving us confused, distracted and depressed. The siren call of cellular technologies exhort us to "Talk all the time," a practice that leaves little time to listen, much less reflect on what we might actually say. And yet, our behaviors are not a given. Our brains are plastic. We have the capacity to learn to use our technologies responsibly. Let us practice gratitude this day by contacting those whose contributions have made our lives possible and thank them for their roles in making us who we are today.

Be grateful anyway.

Amidst our woes, our fears, our tribulations, our world beckons to us, to recognize it as the beautiful place full of amazing living beings that it has always has been. On this day of Thanksgiving, may we set aside our preoccupations, our fear of things we cannot control, our disappointed entitlements, our unsatisfied attachments, all of which lie at the root of our suffering. And let us remember the many blessings of our lives.

Let us give thanks for those lives we are privileged to share and the many means by which our lives are made possible. Let us remember the ones who have shown us kindness, some of whom have forgiven us when we have failed to do the same. And as we count our blessings, let us not lose sight of those who cannot rejoice this day for whatever reason. May our gratitude fuel our resolve to do whatever lies within our capacities to ease that suffering in whatever ways we can.

 This day, let us be grateful anyway.


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Monday, November 19, 2018

Modern Visions of Thanksgiving

Norman Rockwell’s original vision, “Freedom from Want,” referencing FDR’s famous Depression era speech, was produced in 1943, mid-WWII, a beacon of hope for a country whose people had known hunger and fear for perhaps the first times in their lives. Over the years, it has served as a symbol for American abundance before devolving into the icon for consumerist excess. Hardly surprising that Rockwell’s iconic vision becomes the starting point for multiple adaptations (freely available to all at Google images).

Thanksgiving in Appalachia. Amidst serious        Thanksgiving in Trumpland. The country once
poverty caused by economic forces that left         known as America has been carved up and served
them behind, these folks will elect the very          cold. But there will never be enough for these
people who have insured their poverty - and        rapacious mouths. As the world begins to die from
the lack of dignity that accompanies it - in           Anthropocene abuse, the oligarchs scramble to
a society which determines value by wealth.        secure the last morsels of value for themselves.
Pass the self-defeatism.

Thanksgiving in the “Heartland.” Forget                        A Gen X/Y Thanksgiving. So much for
the nation’s most severe opioid addiction                    tradition, it’s a whole new world, baby.
crisis, the denial continues. At least there                    An extra helping of Disruption for    
aren’t any of those damned illegal aliens                      Disruption’s sake for all.
around. Pass the easy manipulation targets.         

A Modern Family Thanksgiving. Loud, crass,         A Deadpool Thanksgiving, the product of an
obnoxious, superficial, self-focused.                        exhausted culture industry. Whatever is lacking in
You know, the American Way. (Ask anyone          thoughtfulness will be made up for with gratuitous
outside our borders…)                                                   violence and an ocean of profanity.        

The actual first Thanksgiving, held between             The last Thanksgiving celebrating the
the invading Spanish conquistadors and the               successes of the Anthropocene Age.          
wary Timucuan peoples who greet them at 
the shores of what became St. Augustine. FL. 
Their communal meal following the first 
Eucharist in what would become the 
United States preceded the mythical meal 
of the Pilgrims by 55 years. Just over a 
century later, these aboriginal peoples
will have become extinct.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018