Florida man, 82, reflects on 1960 civil rights sit-in, subsequent arrest
DELAND — Sixty years after participating in a sit-in for civil rights, Oscar Brock Jr. found himself, again, as part of an effort seeking equal treatment for Black people.
Since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, people have continued to join in protests across the country.
The 82-year-old Brock, who participated in the peaceful protest in downtown DeLand on June 2, said that while openly racist practices, such as segregated seating on public transportation, are no longer acceptable, racism “is alive and well in 2020.”
“We’re fooling ourselves if we think we’ve conquered all the demons,” Brock, a DeLand resident since 2009, said during an interview at his home on June 11.
Brock was 22 years old and a junior studying anthropology at Florida State University when he was invited by a classmate, Steve Poe, to participate in a sit-in at a Woolworth’s, a retail chain known for inexpensive goods that also had a lunch counter.
Poe said there was no ordinance mandating separate seating in franchise establishments, Brock said.
On the morning of March 12, 1960, Brock was picked up by other white students, and the group drove to the Woolworth’s. At 9:30 a.m., 14 college students — six Black males, five white males and three white females — made their way to the store’s lunch counter.
Brock said he sat down and order a cup of coffee, which cost him a quarter, including tip.
“The whites were served, the Blacks were not served,” Brock said.
The manager then put out signs that said “counter closed,” though the group was never asked to leave.
It was maybe 10 minutes later when Mayor George Taff arrived with police officers and directed the students to leave.
The female students left, because they were there to act as witnesses to the sit-in and the group wanted them to avoid arrest so they could report what happened, Brock said.
Brock, who was seated at the end of the counter and didn’t hear the mayor’s order, was asked by an officer if he was a part of the group.
“I had my chance to say no, but I wanted to be arrested, so I said 'yes, sir, I am with the group,’” Brock said.
That’s when the officer grabbed Brock by the collar and jerked him off the stool, telling him “Get over there with your [racial expletive] buddies.”
That comment and the others that followed, made by police, served as assurance to Brock that he was doing the right thing.
Word of the arrest quickly got out, and about 100 students from Florida A&M University marched to the town’s center and demonstrated outside of McCrory’s, a department store much like Woolworth’s.
“Tensions ran higher in Tallahassee on that Saturday in March than at any other time during the entire civil rights movement,” wrote sociologist Lewis M. Killian in his 1994 book “Black and White: Reflections of a White Southern Sociologist.”
The dozens of demonstrators then marched toward Woolworth’s, and on their way “they encountered a band of club-wielding members of the White Citizens Council. After a dangerous standoff, with members of the Tallahassee police force standing by and doing nothing, the black students retreated to their campus,” Killian wrote.
“It was just unbelievable how morally bankrupt the whole white power structure was,” Brock said during the interview at his home.
At the time of his arrest, Brock’s father, Oscar Brock Sr., was working as a state official for the YMCA.
Brock Jr. said his father was upset at first.
“He just didn’t know what to say or do.”
Reflecting on what his father’s coworkers said following the arrest, Brock Jr. choked up a bit.
The coworkers told the elder Brock to be proud of his son and that they had his back.
The sit-in and Brock’s experience were recounted in author Glenda Alice Rabby’s 1999 book, “The Pain and the Promise: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, Florida.”
Brock, “the only student accompanied to court by his parents” and the only one pleading no contest to charges of disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace by engaging in riotous conduct and unlawful assembly, was sentenced to two years’ probation, Rabby wrote.
Throughout his life, Brock has held on to his liberal beliefs, but he says there’s still more for him to learn from today’s youth and those whom he joined in peaceful protest on June 2.
“I grew up white, I think white, and I’m probably unaware of some of my biases,” Brock said. “Any measure of decency I may possess is largely energized by the widespread and vicious bigotry I witnessed growing up.”
His advice for today’s young people who are fighting for police reform and more: “talk.”
“Show some courtesy, get back into kindergarten, put things back where they belong, be good to each other, report a bully,” Brock said. “I think we’re getting better, but we still got a long way to go.”
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.