A Personal Essay: Three Events From Mid-Twentieth Century America
By Joseph N. Muzio
This essay has three unique embryonic components. All three events occurred after World War II ended in August, 1945, the war to save democracy, just as World War I and other more recent wars were supposed to do. They are separated by time and distance, each about 10 years apart, and might even initially appear to be unconnected remote experiences. Their inevitable entwining might not be quickly obvious; their relationships will be spelled out.
Then, they can be put into a context of more recent widespread demonstrations of ongoing violence, hatred and racial discrimination in our country, particularly in the past 5 years or so.
The first incident occurred in the spring of 1946. Two early teenagers from Sunnyside Queens impulsively hitchhiked to Washington, D.C. without their parents' permission and with minimal travel money. The second was in the spring of 1956 when two dear friends drove to Florida and saw something they'd never seen before on the back roads of Georgia. The third incident is related to an obituary in The New York Times on April 5 th , 2021 concerning about an artist “Winfred Rembert, 75, Who Carved His Pain In Works of Art, Dies” (page D6). A terribly cruel and life-changing event occurred to him back in 1967 and it is described in the obituary.
The hitchhiking journey to Washington, D.C. was quite an adventure. We arrived there without much knowledge about the Capital area, unsure of what to do and uncertain where we'd stay. Somehow we started out in Union Station in D.C, spoke to a helpful volunteer at the Travelers' Aid booth and were given maps and information booklets about the many federal buildings and monument sites. We were touring our Capital.
There were water fountains in the station and also public bathroom facilities. When we approached them we immediately noticed signs designating different facilities for those of us who were “White only” and those for others called “Black,” “Colored” or “non-White.” Coming from the New York area, this was a moment of discovery; we'd never seen such signs before and were ignorant of their existence. We looked at each other and without question followed the instructions on the signs. After using these facilities we talked about how unusual, how strange such arrangements were. Then, we left Union Station and got on a bus, but when we did, as we'd started to sit in “the wrong area” we were told by the bus driver it was only for those who were “colored.” We obediently moved to the designated exclusively “white” section, without questioning this.
All of this was a major new learning experience. The nation's Capital and the surrounding areas in our supposed democratic society, its buildings, monuments, and other institutions including public facilities functioned within a rigid, accepted segregated world with strict, silent compliance to disturbing (to us) procedures and regulations. Since we were 13 years old, we followed these rules, as did everybody else.
Wasn't everybody in our country free? No. Didn't we have a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution? Yes. Then why, how and did all of these historical humiliating restrictions exist to simultaneously deny other citizens of their rights and freedom? Were there “classes” of citizenry based on color?
The second incident unfolded also in the spring. One of us had just quit attending college and was taking a job in publishing in New York City; the other was leaving for the United States Marine Corps and shortly would be reporting for duty at Quantico, Virginia. They'd been buddies at college and although neither of us said this, we knew it would be one of the last times we'd spend unencumbered time together
On their way to Florida there was a planned stop in Asheville, North Carolina for a visit to the home of Thomas Wolfe, an American author who'd died shortly before his 38 th birthday. Both of these young men had read his books, his plays, short stories, letters to his mother, and a couple of biographies. We were students and admirers of Thomas Wolfe. While on the trip, there was much chatter about Wolfe and our beliefs in his writings.
As we traveled south we would periodically stop and go off onto less trafficked roads. Sometimes we would get out and do some physical exercises; since one of us was going into the Marine Corps in about a month, there was desire to work out and be sure he was well prepared for the upcoming rigorous military training. From various sources he knew this would be a difficult and physically challenging experience, unlike any other training procedures.
While moving through Georgia, we decided to take another journey off the regular highway. After traveling several miles on a back road, and after viewing many farms and open spaces, as we went around a curve we came upon a scene neither of us had ever seen. It was a group of about 8 or 9 black men working on the side of the road. They were in drab dirty perhaps stripped prison clothing. Every 2-3 feet, these men were chained to each other at the ankles. They were repairing the road, and were being watched by a heavy white guard sitting on a horse and with a double-barrel shotgun right in front of him, resting across his Western saddle. We slowed down, some of the prisoners looked up at us, as did the guard. They starred at us, we starred at them. No words were spoken, just glances between those in the field and us. As we drove away slowly the guard continued to look at us, expressionless.
We drove about a quarter mile or so around a curve and then pulled over off the road and stopped. We just sat there and looked at each other; then we both spoke simultaneously. “How could this be?” “Why are they chained together?” “Is this America?” “What's going on?” Afterwards we were quiet, we didn't talk for awhile. Sixty something years later and still this scene is with me. Once in awhile my mind wanders to this matter and I think about what happened to the lives of the then-chained men and that guard on horseback.
The third event in this sequence is the obituary mentioned above as it appeared in The New York Times. It involves a near lynching that took place in rural Georgia. If you're curious about the depth and breadth of this individual's journey covering the course of his life events, you can look them up in the obituary. Only the bare details relevant to this writing will be focused upon.
Winfred Rembert died at 75. In 1967, when Rembert was 21, he almost got lynched in Georgia by an angry white mob. He was stripped of his clothing, hoisted up by his ankles. One of the white men in this mob took a knife to him and tried to castrate him; blood was pouring from his groin area. While this was going on, another white man used the “N” word and somehow convinced the rest of the mob to get him back in the jail from where he'd escaped. Rembert then did 7 years in prison with hard labor.
After being damaged and released, he moved on with his life, marrying, moving away from the South, helping to raise a family with 8 children, and eventually settling in New Haven, Connecticut. Over time, Rembert became an accomplished and respected artist. There have been many exhibitions of his creative works throughout our nation. But his earlier near lynching experience remained with Rembert forever. His inclusive artistic themes focus on growing up in the segregated South, the persistence of untoward memories and earlier life experiences there, and his harsh and tragic prison experiences. They are clearly present in his memories and art.
Historians and other scholars have written about the many lynchings of Black men by angry stirred up white mobs. There have also been lynchings and abuses of other minority groups in American history. Paradoxically, the bulk of these earlier murders have never been investigated or prosecuted through local and federal law enforcement and judicial systems. In more recent years, lynchings and other shameful discriminatory events have been curtailed, sometimes adjudicated, although various forms of subtle and public discrimination persist throughout our nation.
In recent years, particularly the past 4-5 years, there has been a decided uptick in hate, violence and lawlessness activities. On January 6 th 2021 an out-of-control mob stormed the Capital to disrupt legal election procedures and harm others. They'd been stimulated by a defeated and bizarre president who spent 77 days subverting the national election results. So, he created and perpetuated the “big election lie” propaganda, while he simultaneously had totally ignored the international pandemic as citizens suffered and thousands died.
Gradually, these invading insurrectionist rioters are being identified and hundreds have already been brought into Federal courts and charged. If they were morally responsible citizens, and believed democratic principles, they would simply turn themselves in to the authorities and cope with the consequences regarding their illegal destructive actions. If they don't, they are just criminal cowards hiding in a mob.
We are not citizens in some banana republic; nor a genetically endowed cult of exclusionary Anglo-Saxons, a code term for “Whites Only.” We are a remarkably diverse population constantly changing over generations in an evolving democracy based on Constitutional laws and guided by principles and procedures. Can more recent hate and extremism activities morph into even more criminal and abusive events by individuals and incited thoughtless mobs to deny the rest of us our rights? The author E.B. White reminds us: “In doubtful, doubting days, national morality tends to slip and slide toward a condition in which the test of a man's honor is his zeal for discovering dishonor in another.”
Will our democracy, this more than two centuries old experiment in freedom and diverse change, coupled with all its flaws and disappointments endure when distortions, lies and false tales promote more violence and hold us in their senseless grip? This will depend on delicate time and unpredictable circumstances as to whether we have the moral courage, sensitive intelligence and integrity to shape our nation's format as a sustaining viable democracy. We all need to pay attention. Otherwise, there will be no democracy.
Documentary Film: “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert” (2011).
Memoir: Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist's Memoir of the Jim Crow South. Wilfred Rembert, collaborated with Erin I. Kelly.
The New York Times Obituaries , April 5, 2021: “Wilfred Rembert, 75, Who Carved His Pain In Works of Art, Dies,” by Katharine Q. Seelye, page D6.
Ilan Stavans (Ed.) Becoming Americans-Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing , New York, The Library of America, 2009.
Charles M. Blow, “America Is Still Racist,” The New York Times Opinion , May 3, 2021, page A23.
On Democracy, E.B. White. Collection of Essays, edited by Martha White, New York, Harper Collins, 2019.
The Year of Hate and Extremism 2020 – A Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, AL. 36104. (Earlier years on the same topic are available from this organization .)
“77 Days: Trump's Campaign to Subvert the Election”. The New York Times, February1, 2021.
The Constitution of the United States. (R eadily available through the National Center for Constitutional Studies (Phone: 208-645-2625).
Amendment XV , ratified February 3, 1870: Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2 : The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.