By the time Benjamin L. ‘Red’ Kerce died from a heart attack at just 53 during a business trip to Orlando, he’d risen to the rank of director of press relations for the Florida Highway Patrol. A native of Union County, Red Kerce had lived in Tallahassee about 20 years, working as a writer and photographer for the Florida Times-Union, and as correspondent for several out-of-state dailies. He was chief of the Brevard County bureau of the Orlando Sentinel-Star for several years, with headquarters in Titusville.
Mr. Kerce was also employed by The Telegraph at the start of his newspaper career in the 1920s. He was married to the former Catherine Threlkeld of Titusville, and they had seven sons.
Over 800 of his photographs of Tallahassee and the surrounding area are housed at the Florida State Archives. They give us a snapshot of the times, not least of all how the officials of law and order were on friendly terms with the Klu Klux Klan. I didn’t come to Red’s archive looking to write about race. But race infects every image. Portraits of the all-white, all male judiciary suited and booted for the lens; a bevy of all-white Senators’ wives smiling for their group photo; and the all-white police force enforcing the hierarchy of law and order that places blacks at the bottom, invite us to peep past the blinkers and see what we’re missing on the margins.
Red took many photographs of a KKK meet-and-greet cross burning staged on September 1 1956. In one image Mrs Kerce shares niceties with the robed white supremacy group. Police oversee parking and keep spectators away from the flames. The camaraderie between police and organised, murderous bigotry is plain.
“Welcome to Eden,” says the sign over the entrance to Republican candidate for governor Elvy Edison Callawa’s Garden of Eden Park. Callaway believed God created man in the delta of the Apalachicola river, which split into four rivers, just as the Bible describes four rivers leading out of Eden. You could visit Adam’s birthplace and take home a shard of the tree from which Noah built his ark. You could feel God’s embrace. But only if you were white.
It’s noticeable, at least it is to our eyes some 60 plus years after, that down where the cotton blossoms grow the only black faces in the frames are serving whites. White women who might have thought they’d reached rock bottom with incarceration at the Florida State Prison at Raiford could look down on the black woman forced to serve their slops in the segregated prison. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were defeated. But the fervour with which many Americans fought for freedom overseas was not realized by all at home in the 1950s.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, nearly 100 years after the end of the Civil War. The Act outlawed unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation of public spaces. The combination of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the 89-year reign of Jim Crow.
On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, in Memphis, Tennessee. In the ten days following this tragic event, riots erupted in over one hundred American cities. Up until this time, social scientists believed all rioting occurred in response to local events or dissatisfaction. This assassination proved that black awareness extended further than home boundaries. The rioting afterwards ‘was the first time that [Black] collective disorder was set off in response to a single, politically significant national event.’
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