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 Fall, 1998


 White fear is explored

Car Locks and Carelessness

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 Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

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 rest.
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 frustration.
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 musical.

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 Country Club.

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 fear.

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".