How did I get the job with C. B. King in the first place and go to the South, to Albany, GA? In 1962 the National Lawyers Guild, a kind of left wing Bar association, went to Atlanta and put on a joint Personal Injury and Civil Rights Litigation seminar to attract the southern Black lawyers. P.I. was a great lead-in because for so many that was kind of subsistence. Anyhow, out of that project and after talking to the local attys about their needs, they decided to start a project to send law students to the South for the summer of 1963. They probably contacted virtually every Black lawyer in the South. My memory is that only two even were remotely interested Chuck Connolly in Montgomery and C. B. King in Albany, GA.
My second year of law school I so loathed that I had gone down to the graduate school and signed up to be an Icelandic Studies major, figured there wouldn't be too much competition, tho it suddenly dawned on me that by the same token there wouldn't be much of a demand and the idea of teaching in the U. of Manitoba or even U. of North Dakota just didn't do it, so dutifully I went back to "the majesty of the law."
So that second summer I decided to get a law job. Mostly to find out if I could tolerate what "real lawyers" did 10-12 hours a day (little did I know I'd be doing 20/7 in my dotage).
A friend (my only friend in law school I was a bit hostile in my leftover beatnik outfit dirty jeans and an army fatigue jacket sitting around with every Laguna Beach surf bum twerp that ever existed) I asked if he knew of a law job for the summer. He said he'd ask around. A couple of days later he came back and told me nothing around here but would I like to go south? Well I'd been in CA long enough to know "going south" meant LA, like "going east" meant Salt Lake, Denver, or even, g-d forbid, Oklahoma.
So I said sure, why not. He sent me to see this rather eccentric older woman named Ann Ginger. So she starts grilling me about going South did I realize how brutal the pigs were, that they were still lynching people, that everyone would be the enemy and I'm thinking I've heard a lot of badmouthing about LA but this takes the cake.
Finally, after about half an hour we both realize that she's talking about the Deep South and I'm talking about Encino or Pasadena. Wow. But coming from the background I did, I knew it would make my parents, if not proud, at least supportive. So I put in my application.
Turned out there were over 100 for the two Black lawyers in the South brave enough to take on a law student. C. B. King wrote welcoming me to All-Benny, GA. I was thrilled beyond description. My other law school "friend" went to Chuck Connolly in Montgomery, AL. He was subsequently disbarred.
I sent in an application with some working class type of jobs listed on my resume (I think my secret fantasy was to amass enough material for a really interesting book jacket) I'd been a bellhop, busboy, exterminator, Christmas tree salesman, etc. The most important job, it turns out, was that I was in the Steward's Dept. in the Merchant Marines. There are three departments: deck, engineering, and stewards.
A while later I got a very welcoming letter from C. B. inviting me to come down and work with him. I was terribly excited but then I started thinking it dawns on me, for some reason, what if C. B. thinks I'm Black and my being white would create awkwardness or even danger for him? (Selfless person that I am it never entered my brain that when a cracker pulled a pistol it would be 50-50 who got shot first.) Anyway this turned out to be very prescient on my part but not for obvious reasons.
Now, I didn't call up and just come right out front and say, "Hey, I'm a white boy." I felt I should be more subtle. So I wrote another letter thanking him, and announcing which Trailways bus I'd be arriving on and on what date and time. And "to make it easier to recognize me, I'm enclosing a recent photo." Well it was getting on to summer, I had a big Afro (they were called "Jewfros" by those of us affecting them, a nasty plastic fork comb, etc.) and a fairly good tan.
But I never thought for a second that he would assume I was Black. I knew he'd take one look and if my whiteness posed problems for him this would give him an easy out so he could write back and tell me his cousin Louie had suddenly decided to come to Albany to work for him for the summer. But if I got any sort of response at all, it was just a very brief acknowledgment of the time and date, thanking me for the photo and he's looking forward to having me there. Okay I thought, not a problem.
And so came the day, and I stepped down from the Trailways bus in Albany at the bus station on Jackson Street and walked over and entered into the "Culud" waiting room, and there he was, large as life, a man reminiscent in small ways of Dr. King (whom he represented in Georgia King's appearance was his first loss in the Movement but that's another story), with a DEEP voice reminiscent of Black Baptist Preachers.
C. B. was standing there, and greeted me it took months to break through his self-imposed shield of stiffness and formality as Peter de L. or anyone who knew him will attest and we crossed the street and climbed the urine-soaked stairs to an office on the second floor above a combination pool hall and jook joint. I think the only music I ever recall is Bobby Blue Bland and others like him who poured from the juke box night and day, and LOUD. Damn those stairs stank. It was a bit offputting but we were at his office, he opened the door and motioned me in, and Miss Jessie, his then secretary, who was the skinniest human being I had ever seen (she made the people at Dachau look chubby), looked up, stopped typing, and said, "Damn, C.B., I told you he was a white boy."
Well, a line like that needed and deserved an explanation. So C. B. explained. He had received maybe 100 applications from the NLG. It only took a glance at the name for the application to hit the discard pile. Moskowitz, gone; Hershkowitz, gone; Goldberg, Silverberg, Grunberg, gone; and then a handful of European Ethnics Pappadapolis, DeBennedetti, O'Reilly, and so forth. All hit the cutting room floor, so to speak. And then . . . DENNIS ROBERTS . . . Hmmm, this was a possibility. So he looked more closely, and the jobs, bus boy, bellhop, etc., well, those were what C. B. called "boot jobs." But the capper, the absolute tip-off for him was Stewards Dept., Merchant Marines.
C. B. had served in the Navy not many years earlier and he knew that deck and engineer departments were not open to Blacks. Only kitchen work and if you worked in the kitchen and were not obviously a Filipino, you HAD TO BE BLACK. Also in Georgia there are lots of folks who make Snow White look Hispanic. I mean W H I T E. Soft blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, etc.
C. B. explained it as "genes messing with the Black man." Once, soon after I had arrived in SWGA, we were driving around in the backwoods taking a shortcut to a courthouse or maybe avoiding prying eyes of the KKK and I saw on the porch some little BLONDE white kids playing with little DARK Black kids and I commented, something like, "Gee isn't that a charming example of transcending the race barriers in spite of everything how wonderful" etc., or some other liberal claptrap, and C. B. laughed his head off and said "Guess what, they are all BLACK."
C. B. had been in the Navy and knew this fact about the Stewards Dept. Those were jobs reserved solely for Blacks and Filipinos. Grunt jobs, "boot jobs," cooking, serving and cleaning up after white folks jobs. Actually I had a choice when I got into the union. I knew I didn't want to be in the Engine Room or "black gang" as it was called not black because Blacks got those jobs, they didn't but because you came up on deck filthy and covered with a thick coat of oil.
Deck was vaguely interesting to me but I remembered failing the boy scout merit badge for knot tying which was what I pictured the Deck Gang doing sitting on bales of alfalfa, a plug of chaw in their cheek, whittling, spitting, getting drunk, and maybe working in 2 or 3 hours of "looking busy."
But the Stewards Dept. attracted me. That was where the food was. So began my short-lived career in the Merchant Marines in Brazil, going to bars every night where inevitably one of my brother mariners would grab the pompom bedecked beret of a Brazilian sailor, the cue for chairs to fly and punches to be thrown, etc. I tried to avoid it most of the time but once accidentally got my nose broken. The ships had no purpose. They were docked there to retrieve missiles flown from Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy) which landed in the ocean. None came during my three months. Since we weren't required to do anything except some maintenance and there were no rules about coming or going, I spent most of my time in a Brazilian house of ill repute, and the services contained therein were received in trade for a .22 pistol I had purchased for the trip. I still think it was a fair trade.
So, C. B. chose me. As it turned out, the first reverse affirmative hire in history. They (C. B. and Miss Jessie) had spent a lot of time studying my application and speculating on things racial. When the photo came a huge debate ensued. C. B. was convinced I was just real light "complected" my term, which I learned in Albany, a common descriptive adjective in the arsenal of those used by Blacks to denote skin tones.
However, C. B. didn't like it the term not its use or purpose, he was as amused by the thicket or quagmire of American racial convolutions as anybody and loved to point out an apparently white person who was really Black, a common topic of conversation in the South anyway. No, the word itself as a word, or nonword. One of the few times he got somewhat annoyed with me was whenever I used that term, "complected," a term that was very common in SoWeGa. He told me it was not a word, was not a proper English usage, etc.
I guess if you'd read one of those giant dictionaries word for word that sit on little stands and have a little drawer with a magnifying glass in it, you too would take umbrage at a "nonword" being bandied about. He had, literally, read a giant dictionary cover to cover. I heard it from his siblings as he would never admit it, but as a matter of fact as every judge he stood before or D.A. he opposed knows the man had a vocabulary that would shame an English PhD candidate.
Well, the whole thing became understandable to me when I first started seeing obviously white people, blonde hair, blue eyes, whom C. B. identified as P.O.D Black. P.O.D., that's another story, C.B. loved to throw that in. He loved to use that expression, P.O.D., meaning pure, or the truth, kind of "emes," Yiddish for a similar concept. My guess is it was a southern Black slang word from the forties. Anyway, that is what I am doing here, these reminiscences. P.O.D.
Copyright © Dennis Roberts
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