By Al Owens
What would you do if I walked up to you on the street, insulted you then walked
away? I'm always shocked, but that sort of thing happens frequently in
Last winter, I'd spent an afternoon and part of an evening at The Uniontown
Public Library doing a bit of research. I was in possession of my notebook and a
freshly borrowed book.
I was simply standing on the corner about to cross the street when I saw a man
swan dive across his car seat to lock his passenger side door. It was a near
perfect performance. A more powerful leap and he may have given himself a
concussion. Maybe he practices in his driveway. All to keep a safe buffer
between himself and a 48 year-old African American man armed with a book. He
must have been thinking "Oh, there's a black man with a book, I'd better protect
myself." What was I going to attack this guy with, a bookmark?
That particular incident wouldn't rate a recounting if had it not been a replay
of so many similar incidents in my past.
During the mid 1960's on the East End of Uniontown, at the corner at East Main
Street and Grant Street, we'd meet daily to formulate our ruthless attacks on
innocent white people. We'd be careful to conceal our books and bookmarks until
they'd approach, then we'd hurled quotes from "To Kill a Mockingbird." One white
motorist suffered a cardiac arrest a when somebody carelessly spit out "You
never really know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes". That Atticus Finch
must have been the father of the modern street gang movement.
There was, and still is, a stoplight at that corner. Every summer Sunday
evening, that stoplight caused car and boat traffic to back up for a mile. An
assortment of weekend weary boaters were on the final leg of their weekly visits
to the lake, with only one stumbling block between them and an early night's
The sounds of car doors locking could be heard as faraway as Uniontown Speedway.
It didn't matter that the young street toughs weren't paying any attention to
them. That there may never have been a report of a corner waif having even
barked an invective at a white motorist. Sunday after Sunday, white motorist
after white motorist showed they were afraid of young people who were doing
absolutely nothing to harm them.
The fact that these people made no effort to conceal their fear caused even more
And worse even still, many of the people who found safety behind locked car
doors were people with whom we worked and studied. To be considered a ruthless
thug on Sundays by somebody you'd shared a lunch table with on Fridays, caused
tension on Mondays, at the very least.
I'm not just picking on Uniontown. In just about every city I've ever lived I've
witnessed hyper vigilant drivers nearly breaking their thumbs, trying to
guarantee their safety. In 1972 there were only 37 African American families
living in Tioga County Pennsylvania. I was the only single black male over the
age of 21 in the entire county. Wellsboro is the county seat. At the time 4500
people lived there.
The first time I walked along a downtown Wellsboro street just about everybody
stopped to watch. I don't mean a few people. Everybody! I thought I was in
If somebody would have broken into a song I would been at ease.
Nobody did. A year, and hundreds of indignities, later I was carrying a load of
laundry from the local laundromat when I saw a woman nearly crush her small
child reaching for the passenger side lock. In one motion that woman taught her
child that black people carrying towels and underwear were quite capable of
laundrycide. But why? There had been no history of black people committing
violent crimes in this small community. None. I spent a year and a half there
and on some days I conversed with people at length who had never uttered even a
single "hello" to a black person.
I worked at the town's radio station. School children and their parents would
call and make requests for the songs they liked. If I didn't play them I would
receive death threats. I think under those circumstances I should have been the
one showing fear. I did not.
Because I somehow learned that even in the most hostile environments most people
would cause me no harm. That for every person issuing a death threat or a racial
epithet there were ten who have none of that. That is the thought I carried onto
the streets of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania at midnight or at dawn. Not fear.
Please don't misread this. I'm not asking all white people to suddenly begin
parading through the East End waving their life savings. I wouldn't attempt that
along the halls of Congress or at the banquet facilities at The Uniontown
I'm simply suggesting the one thing worse than carelessness is unfounded fear.
Especially when there are decent, well meaning people on both sides of that
If I advance on you with a scowl across my face and an semiautomatic weapon in
my hands don't just sit there lock your car door.
But if I happen to be standing on a downtown street corner with a book cradled
in my and arms, I have that "Will this light ever change" look in my eye it's a
safe bet reaching to lock your car door is wasted motion.
Unless of course I happen to be carrying a copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird".