One Saturday morning in Tallahassee, Florida in January 1957, three black men and three white—my father, Joe Spagna, among them—gathered outside Speed’s, a small corner grocery, to wait for a city bus. Their plan was simple enough, to ride the bus together, but it was dangerous as hell.
For three weeks, ever since the bus boycott in nearby Montgomery, Alabama had ended in triumph, chaos had reigned in Tallahassee. Crosses were burned. Windows were peppered with birdshot. Bombs were detonated. A group of mixed-race clergymen who planned an integrated ride were greeted at the downtown bus depot by a mob of 200 Klansmen wielding shiny new hatchets from the local hardware store.
Now the six guys standing in front of Speed’s planned to try again. They lit cigarettes, and loitered on the street corner, waiting.
“I went there to meet some friends of mine,” my father later testified. “We had no purpose in mind. We were just going over there – a Saturday morning jaunt, college boys.”
He was, of course, lying.
Twenty-two years later in January 1979, in Riverside, California, my father and I sat on the couch together. I was eleven years old. My father was forty-seven and already a ghost of himself, only three months out of heart bypass surgery, a brand new procedure. “Come running with me,” he said.
He’d taken up jogging when I joined the track team in 4th grade, and over time he’d grown a little fanatical. He’d lost weight and quit smoking, and then, unexpectedly, he had a heart attack, then the bypass.
“No,” I said.
“Then you ride your bike, and I’ll run.”
“No,” I said. “The doctor said no.”
That night my father collapsed on the sidewalk a mile from home. Paramedics identified the body by the saint’s medal he wore around his neck that read: Always go forward. Never Go Back.
Later I adopted my father’s creed: when I turned eighteen, I left Riverside and never went back. I headed to the Pacific Northwest, a green pastoral kind of netherworld where less would be expected of me, almost nothing, where eventually I built a small cabin and settled down with my partner, Laurie, to stay put.
Then one day a few years back, while Googling my younger brother, also named Joe Spagna, I stumbled upon a link to a book called Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. There wasn’t much detail in the online blurb, but one thing was clear: it could not possibly be my scientist brother. I ordered the book.
The mention was brief—much of it in a lengthy footnote—but it did substantiate a family myth: once upon a time, my father had sat in the back of a bus in Florida and gotten arrested. Where the story came from, I couldn’t say. I never heard it until after he died, and I certainly didn’t believe it. Not entirely at least. But here it was. My father had, indeed, been arrested in 1957 for sitting beside a black man on a bus.
What’s more, he and two other defendants—Leonard Speed and Johnny Herndon—had taken their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This was beginning to sound interesting. I emailed the author, Dr. David Chappell, later that day and he responded immediately. He did not know the answers to my questions, he said, but he gave me several leads, and he emphasized the importance of finding living witnesses.
“Track down people who might have known him. Anyone. Talk to them,” he said.
He made the story seem, if not huge, certainly worth examining.
Then he said this: “Your father is the kind of person who makes us enjoy our jobs and feel we have some examples of courage and decency to hold up in a world that otherwise is inclined to cynicism and despair.”
I felt a wave of pride. Courage and decency? That’s my dad he’s talking about! And quick on its heels came shame. Cynicism and despair? That’s me he’s talking about.
I started writing emails and reading books and trying to understand.
Eventually, I set off for Tallahassee.