We've Come a Long Way, Baby

Never thought I'd see the day

By Willie Qui??ones
Published on LatinoLA: June 8, 2008

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

The headline in today's Daily Breeze read: "Obama declares nomination win". I wasn't surprised but still disappointed because I am a Clinton supporter. Despite being a Clinton supporter, I was in the front row of an Obama rally on the Westside early in the campaign. I listened to him with an open mind but he did not grab me. I was eager to get caught up in the groundswell that was building for him. But, he didn't do it for me that day so I stayed loyal to Hillary.

The thing that surprised me this morning was the reaction the headline had on me. And it was surprising because I didn't think I would care one way or the other if Obama won the nomination. However, upon reading the story, I got very emotional and tears welled in my eyes. I hadn't believed that our country had progressed enough to nominate an African- American man for president. I shook my head in disbelief but was happy that I was proven wrong.

The reason I was so skeptical is because I come from a time and place where so-called Negroes were considered second-class citizens. Growing up in Texas in the 50's, we saw this injustice everywhere, but nobody said or did anything to rock the boat. In my growing up, they have been called Negroes or Blacks and now by the term African-Americans. But back then, the most common word used on them in Texas was nigger. Not only was this insult commonly heard, I also saw outright racism in many other ways. Like when I'd travel down the main highway with my Dad where there were dozens of motels. But, there was only one with a sign that read, Colored Welcome. Part of my paper route was the Greyhound Bus Depot. While there, I used to puzzle over the signs above the restroom doors. I would look at the "Men-White" and "Men-Colored" signs and wonder where a brown Mexican youngster was supposed to go. I wound up alternating between the two.

I also remember my Dad paying the Poll Tax every year so that he could vote. But the tax's intent was not to raise more revenue. Instead, it was one of the many ploys that was used to discourage poor black people from voting. At another time, I went to a rock n' roll concert to see Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and a youngster named Jimmy Clanton. The next day, I saw Domino and Berry loading their bags outside the only colored hotel in town located in the small black neighborhood close to downtown. The two black entertainers weren't allowed to stay at the Hilton where a white Jimmy Clanton stayed.

In 1958 they closed down the old colored school in town, Fredrick Douglas, and transferred many of the kids to our school. I was at the window sharpening my pencil during 1st period when six buses rolled up to deliver them for the first time. Everyone in my class followed me to the windows and we watched in amazement as these scared youngsters made their way into the school to be admitted. I don't remember us having any kind of problems as they quickly assimilated. One of those youngsters would become our star athlete and letter in basketball, track, baseball and football. He was also voted "Most Popular" in our next yearbook. The integration of the Texas schools took place four years after the historical Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education ordered desegregation to proceed "with all deliberate speed".

In 1962, I was a sailor on a troop ship that participated in the blockade of Cuba during the Soviet missile crisis. We were in the Caribbean waters for a couple of weeks waiting for the Russians or Cubans to make a false move. We talked brave, but we were a bunch of scared youngsters worried about what Kruschev would throw at us. Finally, President Kennedy declared a truce. So, we sailed to Louisiana to unload our troops at Algiers, on the Mississippi River across from New Orleans.

There, Jim Crow reared his ugly head once more as benches, drinking fountains, toilets, taxis, trolleys, restaurants and even telephones were segregated.

Once, I was with three black shipmates when we took a ferry bound for New Orleans. When we boarded we quickly noticed the racial designations posted on signs everywhere. We couldn't even sit together on the same benches, so we stood instead. Neither of my shipmates were from the South, two were from Los Angeles and one was from Detroit, so they had never experienced this. I pretended I didn't notice, but I felt sad and embarrassed for them. They had just put their butts on the line like the rest of us and then they get treated like that? Why, I couldn't even hitch a ride with them into town. The driver told us their taxi was for colored people only. If he got caught taking me, he would have lost his license.

After I left the service, I stayed in California but I remember the Sixties and Seventies when we experienced the tumultuous civil rights struggle. At that time black people had the audacity to demand equal treatment and because of it they were lynched, burned, tortured, battered, cursed and spat upon. Then, marches took place. Sit-ins took place. Demonstrations took place. National Guard took place. Black Panthers took place. Black Muslims took place. Assassinations took place. Riots took place. To think that all of that division, destruction and hate was fueled by the desire of a few to deny others the rights granted all citizens under our Constitution.

And now, fast forward to 2008. A black man is to be nominated for our nation's highest office. Wow! I never thought I'd see the day. We've come a long way baby! What relief and joy it is to discover that our country is indeed ready to move forward to complete it's promise of equality. No wonder it brought tears to these old eyes.

About Willie Qui??ones:
Willie Quinones, Retired College Foreman, San Pedro, CA;

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