The Civil Rights Battle


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. March on Washington 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
March on Washington

I have posted some of my remembrances of life in the deep South during the 1950’s when the problems regarding integration of the races began making national headlines. The close personal relationships I had with Brother Mose and Sister Bobbie who worked for our family during those years, perhaps caused me to be blinded to the intolerable status of blacks throughout the country, but especially in the South. Prior to my teenage years, I somehow thought it was the choice of  blacks to be segregated and gave no thoughts to the fact that Pops, who was a general practitioner had a separate patient waiting room marked Colored Waiting Room. There was never an incident in his office in which a black person demanded to be seated in the White Waiting Room. That could have been because Pops was a beloved family doctor to all of his patients, and no one wanted to damage their relationship with him. He did not discriminate in the quality of medical care he gave all of his patients. I rode with him on many night calls into the segregated black areas of town, which at times could be dangerous. His car was recognized and was never damaged or vandalized, and he was never threatened throughout his career.

Throughout my three years of pre-med study at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I never had a black person in class with me. On entering the freshman class in 1957, some of my class mates were called to active duty with the National Guard and had to go to Little Rock to protect the 9 black students that entered Central High School. That significant event marked the beginning of integration of all of the public schools in Arkansas. By the time I entered medical school in 1960, there had been such a change in admission policies that four black students were enrolled in the freshman class with me. 

There was no animosity or racial incidents during my tenure in medical school to my knowledge. We were all so vested in our education and so busy studying to avoid failure, we had no time for such foolish things. The only thing I witnessed that could have caused a furor happened one morning as about 15 of us freshmen prepared to get into an elevator to attend our Gross Anatomy class. One of our black classmates named Nate who was very outgoing and well liked by most; entered the elevator first and took his place at the back. As the elevator filled, the last person to enter was a Jewish student named Harvey from New York. As the doors closed and the volume of the conversations lowered, Harvey said, “Good morning, Nigger.” It got deathly quiet for a few anxious moments until Nate cheerfully returned the greeting, “Good morning Jew boy!” Everyone laughed loudly, the doors opened as we reached our floor, and we went on to class. Nothing more was said or done.

During those med. school years, the Freedom Riders were regularly going into cities like Memphis, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. These riders were civil rights activists riding interstate buses to protest the segregation in those interstate buses, and some were met with violent opposition. There were no violent demonstrations in Little Rock that I remember. A committee of segregationists in Little Rock called the Capital Citizens Council arranged a free bus ride for any black person who wanted to leave Little Rock. The trip was a one way ticket to Hyannis, Massachusetts, the summer home of the John F. Kennedy family. The committee referred to the travellers as Reverse Freedom Riders, and over a one year period paid for transportation for about 200 people.

A favorite restaurant of many in Little Rock at that time and a particular favorite of mine was Fisher’s Bar-B-Que, a black-owned restaurant located not far from the Capital. There were 4 of us that would eat there as often as we could afford a meal out, which was usually once a month on a Sunday evening. As we entered the restaurant we were recognized and greeted as regulars. The restaurant was brightly decorated with clean tables covered with red checkered cloths. A sign in the front said Back Room Only For White PatronsIt was an unusual form of discrimination for us to have to walk through the nice part of a restaurant to a far back room which was small with 3 or 4 benches having no decorations or table coverings. We loved it though; we loved the people who owned the restaurant and we especially loved the bar-b-que! It however gave us a tiny example of one of the many indignities that racial segregation brings.

My internship year in 1964-65 was spent in Atlanta at Grady Memorial Hospital, the large downtown city hospital. Not far from the hospital was Ebenezer Baptist Church which was the church pastored by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was always fearful that Dr. King would be brought to our emergency room having been severely beaten or wounded because of the hatred many white people had toward him. My room-mate that year was from Montgomery, Alabama, and he intensely disliked Dr. King and all the leaders of the civil rights movement. He couldn’t stand to hear the song “We Shall Overcome,” the theme song of the civil rights movement, and whenever the occasion was right, a few of us would sing a few bars for him. Fortunately Dr. King was never attacked in Atlanta, and I don’t remember treating any injuries to civil rights demonstrators during that year.

In remembering those days of radical change in our country, many people paid dearly for the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all today. The men and women, who in those days I considered trouble-makers were in fact real heroes and patriots, and I am very thankful for their bravery. I have personal regrets and sorrow for being so blinded and insensitive toward my American brothers and sisters. Any harmful prejudice is wrong and racial prejudice is sin. I particularly love one point in Dr. King’s speech entitled, “I Have A Dream,” delivered at the March On Washington in 1963. He said, “I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Dear Lord, may it be so!

Dr. John

Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City 1977

Silver Dollar City 1977

Cathy and I had never heard of Branson, Missouri where we now live, until 1975 when we had a conversation with Uncle Harry Gosling from St. Louis, MO. Uncle Harry and Aunt Ruth were favorites of ours and in the early 1970’s were lamenting the fact we seldom got to see them. Uncle Harry said, “Why don’t we meet in Branson, Missouri which is about half-way between El Dorado and St. Louis? My band plays at a real nice motel on the lake and we could all stay there.” We said, “That sounds like great fun, but where in the world is Branson?”  We found Branson on the map and began making plans to go there in the summer of that year. The motel was the Rock Lane Lodge on Indian Point which is on Table Rock Lake, a large man-made lake created by damming up the White River.

For those who are unfamiliar with Branson, Indian Point is located about 7 miles west of Branson off Highway 76 and at the end of Indian Point Road. As one turns off Highway 76 toward Indian Point, he must drive past Silver Dollar City, one of mid-America’s best theme parks. It was founded in 1960 and is an 1880’s theme park that is family friendly and attracts many thousands of visitors to the area each year.

When we discovered the Branson area and subsequently the Rock Lane Lodge, we were introduced to the traffic jams of the area that seemed unusual for a place with such a small year-round population. Highway 76 which is affectionately known as “The Strip” is also known as the world’s largest parking lot because of the continuous flow of traffic at a very slow pace. Much to our delight we discovered that from Silver Dollar City to the Rock Lane Lodge there is very little traffic, so that whenever we wanted to visit the “City” we didn’t have to face those traffic jams. We seemingly had the best of both worlds.

The Rock Lane Lodge is located right on Table Rock Lake which is unusual because  the Corps of Engineers which built the lake does not allow many commercial properties to be located directly on the lake. In those days the lodge was very nice but rustic, and thus was ideal for families. In addition to the boat docks with rentals for fishing and skiing, there were swimming pools, tennis courts, volley ball and shuffle-board courts and a video game area for the teens. The restaurant was full service and offered wonderful meals at reasonable prices. Our family still talks about some of the dishes regularly served such as their breakfast grits which were “the best we ever had.”

We met Uncle Harry and Aunt Ruth on our first visit to Branson and the Rock Lane Lodge, and spent the next 5 days with them seeing as many attractions as possible. We spent 2 of those days visiting Silver Dollar City, and that was our favorite activity. I especially enjoyed all the food venues, and the funnel cakes which I had never experienced, were at the top of my list. I know I had eaten salt water taffy previously, but it was especially fun watching all the different flavors being crafted, and they just seemed to taste better there. In those early days of the City, two of the better attractions were “Fire in the Hole” and “Rube Dugan’s Diving Bell.” The waiting lines were relatively short, and we rode each one 2 or 3 times each day. Like all the other tourists at the City, we purchased a lot of things we normally wouldn’t buy and in most cases didn’t need. Among the list were things like lye soap, hand crafted baseball bats and walking sticks, toy pop guns, Ozark Mountain toys and train whistles. I was always intrigued at the vast number of craftsmen throughout the park who were demonstrating their skills and selling their products. As a surgeon I spent more time watching the wood-carvers and would always leave the park thinking about purchasing a set of carving tools and learning that particular hobby. I am sorry now that I never did act on either impulse.

On our first visit to the City we discovered the Tintype Studio, where 1880-vintage photos were made and had our first of many annual photos taken. In the photo above I was dressed as a stern-faced preacher-father, ruling over his flock with the Bible and a long-barreled pistol. Cathy was the beautiful, well dressed matriarch surrounded by her dutiful daughters and slightly rebellious son toting his jug of moonshine. The collection of photos made through the years are treasures to all of us; and occasionally when the entire family gets together and those photos are brought out, the grandchildren are amused at the sight of their parents in funny costumes.

In visiting Silver Dollar City today, one finds a number of new attractions including at least 4 world-class rides that make me queezy just watching. If those had been available when our children were much younger, I feel certain they would have wanted to ride them multiple times. I suppose we would have had to take some additional older family member to accompany them, because under no circumstance would Cathy nor I have voluntarily gotten on even one of them. The City, despite the expansion has not lost the charm of its’ early days and is a credit to the foresight of the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation who own and manage the attraction. It is still a fun family park!

An interesting conversation I had one morning with one of the managers of the Rock Lane Lodge involved health care. I asked him, “If one of our family had a health issue, would you recommend our using the local hospital (Skaggs Hospital)?” He replied, “If you have a cold or need a few stitches, I would let them take care of it at Skaggs. If it is more than that, I would recommend bypassing them and going to Springfield.” I had no idea that 35 years later I would be a staff member of Skaggs Regional Medical Center which offered full service treatment, and what I consider excellent medical care. We are very grateful God moved us to Branson, Missouri to spend our latter years. We still enjoy Silver Dollar City!

Dr. John

Lessons Learned from Miss Ellis

Hugh Goodwin -4th grade

Hugh Goodwin -4th grade class

When I entered the first grade at Hugh Goodwin Elementary School I remember the excitement I had thinking I was being sent to a playground where everyone got to play all the time. All I knew about the school was what I saw as I would ride by in my parent’s car and see all the kids playing on that huge playground. When I didn’t see them outside playing, I assumed they were inside taking a nap and getting ready for the next play period. Hugh Goodwin was one of the 4 elementary schools in El Dorado at the time and was the school which my brother Berry Lee and sister Marilyn also attended. They had told me it was “the best school in town” so I thought they must surely have the best games to play.

I remember the names of all of my elementary school teachers and at least one of the qualities which set her apart from the others. In those days there were no men who taught school at that level. The one individual who was constant in my grade school experience for the entire 6 years at Hugh Goodwin was the principal, Miss Nola Ellis. My childhood remembrance of her was she was short in stature (seemingly not much taller than I), and had bright red hair. She moved quickly from one place to another with short rapid steps, and her steps always seemed louder than most because of the black, quarter length heels she wore. I could remember all of my friends saying they were scared of Miss Ellis, and the last thing they ever wanted was to be called into her office. It seemed a summons to her office was never for a congratulatory message or award, but for an offence that could not be handled by your own teacher. I knew where her office was located but tried not to pay too much attention to either its’ location or the furniture located behind the closed-door marked “Principal’s Office.” My attitude was if I avoided her and her office, perhaps I could get through the 6 years at Hugh Goodwin, and she wouldn’t know my name or anything about me.That all changed when I got to the 4th grade.

Perhaps I was becoming bolder in my more “mature” state, or I wanted to become more popular with the so-called tough guys. Whatever the cause, I got involved with a gang of spit-wad shooters. Spit-wad shooting was expressly forbidden at school, and the carrying of rubber bands was an offense punishable by a trip to Miss Ellis’ office which usually resulted in expulsion from school for several days. I won’t go into further details except I was caught with a small pack of rubber bands in my sock and was immediately sent to Miss Ellis’ office. I was terrified to the core as I walked down that long hallway and probably promised God a large number of things on the way to that dreaded place. As I sat there with 2 other perpetrators, she looked at me and said, “John Henry, this is not like you and because this is your first time to my office, you just have to stay after school for an hour each day in detention hall the rest of this week. Don’t ever do anything like this again.” I said, “Thank you Miss Ellis. I promise I will never to do anything like this for the rest of my life!” That was my one and only trip to a principal’s office throughout my entire school career. Whenever the thought of a misdeed crossed my mind, I recalled the terror of the walk to Miss Ellis’ office thinking my useful life was over, and the unbelievable relief I felt in receiving the lenient sentence from her.

Years later following a Christian seminar which Cathy and I attended, we had been challenged to think of some person from our past who had meant a great deal in developing our character. I thought about the incident involving Miss Ellis which had occurred over 30 years earlier, and wrote her a detailed 2 page letter thanking her for her influence in my life. I told her she epitomized discipline with mercy and was an ideal grade school principal. I was very grateful for her many years of dedication to excellent childhood education in El Dorado. I received a thank you note from her within a week of sending my letter, and I still have a copy of that note written on May 21,1979.

Within a few months of the letter, Miss Ellis came to me as a surgical patient. She had been in excellent health for her previous 82 years, but had developed a malignant condition which required a major operation. She recovered well and was cured from the malignancy. The blessing for me was I had the privilege of spending many hours with Miss Ellis while she recovered and got to witness Christ to her and pray for her. I heard many stories from her about her wonderful career and her influence on so many children.

Miss Ellis lived another 10 years and departed this life in 1989 at age 92 years. She had a quiet but vibrant faith in the Lord Jesus, and she is with Him now.Thank you Miss Ellis. You will always be one of my childhood heroes!

Dr. John