For International Women’s Day today, I hope you’ll read the attached excerpt from my new book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book chronicles a class that was offered at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville, during the early 1970s. Despite the federal government’s efforts to erase discriminatory laws from the legal systems of southern states, Jim Crow remained a healthy institution. The class at UNF was made up of a dozen students, equally black and white, and gender-balanced. It was based on the notion that, in the matter of race in the United States, reconciliation is sought, while confrontation is shunned. Sadly, the formula has not worked. The core element of the class was racial confrontation, in which in-your-face truth-telling about the troubles between Blacks and Whites was the single subject. The one restriction was that physical attack was forbidden. As Dr. Price M. Cobbs, co-author of the seminal Black Rage, writes in his foreword to An Arena of Truth, “This book shows Kranz’s courage, and especially that of his students, as pioneers in the development of an authentic conversation about race.”
Marguerite was a black student.
Marguerite describes some very important events in her life after Pete Kranz’s class.
“The day I walked into the class, in 1973, I think I had a kind of awkward politeness around white people, in which no matter what Whites may have done in the past, you still maintained that awkward politeness. But that was a barrier that I was able to shed because of the class.
“In 1976, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to work for the state government. There was an incident one day, in which a white supervisor treated one of her black employees in a way that I didn’t feel was fair. At first I didn’t think I should get involved. You know, stay out of it, Marguerite. It’s not your business.
“But then, a while later, I myself was up for a promotion. At the time, I had two years of college education. I was to be interviewed by my white supervisor, who was a woman I knew, a woman I worked with every day. When the interview started, she asked me one or two questions, and then her phone rang. She picked up the receiver, and it was clear to me that this was a personal call, from a friend or someone. I waited, and continued waiting, until the scheduled time for the interview to close arrived. She was still on the phone. She interrupted the conversation, to end the interview. That was it! I was out of there!
“Another woman in our section was also interviewed, someone who started with the state just a few days after I started. She had a high school diploma. She was white, and she got a full interview…no phone call. And she got the job.
“I went right to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
This federal organization had been founded during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Part of its mandate, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was to administer and enforce civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.
“I may not have done that, had it not been for Pete’s class. It was a confidence I now had, about not feeling that awkwardness I talked about, when it came to dealing with this particular white supervisor. Maybe she thought I should have been grateful for simply having gotten the interview. But I felt that the supervisor and I were on the same playing field, and I won the case! The EEOC said I should have gotten the job. I got the back pay, and everything that went along with it.
“Now this was supposed to be a supervisory position, and when I finally got there, I learned that there was no supervision involved, and that basically nothing for me had really changed. So I complained again. This time, the position was restored to what it was supposed to be, and an EEOC officer was also to become part of our department staff.
“This was great. But then there was a new statewide election, and the new Secretary of State declared that he was under no obligation to honor any agreement made by his predecessor.
“So, I sued the state, for discrimination against black Americans in hiring and promotion. I got eighteen people, all black and all representative of the areas of employment in that part of the government, and we did a class action suit. (By the way, except for two of those people, who were senior aids to government officers, the rest of us worked in the basement of the old state building—a new one had just been built—and we were kept unseen.) The class action lasted for nineteen years, and at the end of that, those whose names were still connected with it received a suitable settlement. It happens that I myself had left the suit. Our attorney explained to me that, because I had gotten compensation from my first suit, the possibility for my getting additional compensation could hamper the progress of this class action suit. So I dropped out. I didn’t want to get in the way.
“In the meantime, a lot because of the class action, conditions changed in the State government’s hiring and promotions practices.
“I never felt isolated after that. I didn’t have that awkwardness. And I think a lot of what I did in those times was due to ‘Human Conflict: Black and White.’”
(An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White is available in book stores and from Amazon. It was published on March 1.)