Brennan: Encounters with racism

By Tom Brennan |

My first encounter with racism was quite jarring. I knew such things existed but was not prepared.

I grew up in Massachusetts in a community outside Fort Devens, a mid-size Army facility, and my dad was a civilian executive at the Quartermaster Corps. Many of my friends were from families that were either military or worked for the military.

My dad’s friends were both civilian and military and one of his closest friends was a black man, which never registered with me as anything more than some friends are white, some are black and other colors.

A few months after I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1959 I enlisted in the National Guard and was shipped off to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training. After that I was assigned to radio teletype school in Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Several buddies were going to the same school so we decided to make our trip into an event. Since airlines were taking over the transportation business by then and trains were the unhip way to go, we decided to meet in Boston and travel to Southern Georgia by train, the slow, sight-seeing way.

We had fun and all went well until we got a few miles outside Atlanta. The train stopped to refuel and refit and the conductors told the passengers we were free to get off the train and stretch our legs if we wanted.

I got off, wandered into the small terminal building and did an immediate double take. There, hanging from the walls and ceilings, were signs saying “White” and “Colored.” I had never seen anything like that in my life. The signs seemed to tell a horrible story.

I was offended so I sat down in the Colored section, feeling mildly righteous. I sat there determinedly with my hands in my lap, waiting to see if anything happened. A black woman sitting a few rows in front of me turned and said: “You better get out of here before you get us both in trouble.”

That hadn’t occurred to me so I got up and quickly left, scrambling back onto the train feeling that I had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime wake-up call.

I didn’t become an activist of any kind but after I finished Signal School a neighbor suggested that, since I was a half-decent writer, I should apply for a job at The Worcester Telegram, our county newspaper. There I could use my writing skills to make a living. I did, got a job as a reporter and began the journalism part of my career.

I loved reporting and was soon assigned to The Telegram’s city staff and was drawing a lot of exciting assignments. Among those was covering the civil rights demonstrations in Boston, regional demonstrations in support of the major demonstrations that were increasingly erupting in the South. We listened, by radio and television, to every word uttered by Martin Luther King. As a reporter, I tried to cover and write about the big marches rather than participate, but it was an exciting assignment.

When the Worcester demonstrators gathered, their buses always waited at Clark University in front of Atwood Hall. The building was named for Bob Atwood’s uncle, Dr. Wallace W. Atwood, who was president of Clark years before. Bob Atwood attended Clark and started his journalism career at The Worcester Telegram in the same newsroom where I worked 20 some years later.

One of the people I often ran into there was a young guy who would later become famous as a member of the Chicago Eight, Abbie Hoffman. Abbie and seven other activists would draw major national attention when they led demonstrations disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Abbie was then a student at Clark.

I remember boarding a bus headed for a demonstration one day and looking up as a police officer boarded the bus. He whispered to the bus driver, then walked to my seat. “Abbie Hoffman is lying under the bus,” the cop told me, “and he says he won’t leave until he talks to the reporter.”

I nodded and followed the officer off the bus, then leaned way down into Hoffman’s face and asked: “What’s up, Abbie?”

“These people have no right to demonstrate,” he said

“Why not?”

“They haven’t earned the right.”

I closed my notebook and nodded to the cop. He and his partner grabbed Abbie by the shoulders and legs and hauled him away.

I got back on the bus and two busloads of enthusiastic demonstrators headed off for Boston.


3 Responses to Brennan: Encounters with racism

  1. Elizabeth Kelly August 20, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Other than Joe’s mom who is Japanese and also lived in the South in the fifties , you are the only other person I know in our family who had to deal with racism. Joe dealt with it in school in the sixties. Thank you for writing about this subject and for letting me see a little of your life back then.

  2. Mike Dryden August 22, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    If you want to read a historical fiction novel about racism during the construction of the Alaska Highway, Get a copy of “28 October 1942” from Amazon by Alaskan Major Mike Dryden USAR Retired.

  3. Mat Brown August 23, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Good story Tom.
    Nobody has the right to shut down speech, no matter how obnoxious the subject. Let everyone talk, and good people will figure out who’s right and who’s wrong.
    But if at first we stop disgusting speech, and then profane speech, then un-Christian speech, then hate speech, then offensive speech, then unsettling speech, then frightening speech, then ignorant speech, then inaccurate speech, then partisan speech, then un-American speech, then speech that is unfit for children….pretty soon there’ll be no speech at all.


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