Edgar Martin, 85, lived much of his life before civil rights were extended to African Americans. He shows little bitterness about those days, saying it was just “something he had to accept.”
ALBANY, Ga. — Edgar Martin has lived in Albany all his life. He’s black, 85 years old and retired from the post office.
When he was 28 the U.S. Supreme Court overthrew the doctrine of “separate but equal” as it applied to education. Ten years after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed his rights as equal to any other person. Martin remember the days before all that.
“I grew up understanding the situation,” Martin said. “I never made too much of it. I remember at the Kress store downtown — what we called a dime store — there was a water fountain for the white people and one for the colored folks. We just accepted it.”
Martin said that in those days black people were referred to either as “colored,” or “Negroes,” with the term “African-American” coming much later.
As a youngster, Martin enjoyed watching movies at the Albany Theater, but he and the other black children were restricted to the balcony, he said, remembering a special entrance and a passageway that lead up a flight of stairs. Again, Martin said he “never thought anything of it.”
Schools were segregated then, under the constitutional doctrine of “separate but equal,” which allowed states to educate white and black children in separate, purportedly equal facilities. Conditions certainly were separate, but Martin disagrees that they were equal.”
“I don’t remember ever having a new textbook,” Martin said, “All the books came from McIntosh or Broad Street or some other school. They had the stamps still in them. Sometimes the covers would be coming off or a page would be torn out. I’d have to find a student with that page to see what was on there.”
Martin said that even though many of the white schools were close to black parts of town, black kids had to walk to another school they were allowed to attend.
“We had to walk,” Martin said. “I never rode in a school bus in my life. While we were walking to our school, the white kids would ride past us in their school bus, stick their heads out the windows and call us names.”
Still, some 75 years later, Martin shows no bitterness about those days, accepting it a simple fact of life, both then and now, he said.
“I could understand their thinking. I was a victim of society in a sense,” said Martin. “We knew what to expect. All the elected officials and the police officers were white.”
One of Martin’s earliest memories is of a chain gang (prisoners) working on a sewer near his home. To a great degree, it affected his attitude and his direction in life.
“They were working on the sewer there in front of my house,” Martin said, “and all of them were black and dressed in those striped suits. All the guards were white. Several of us were just curious and hung around them for a while, watching them work. From looking at them, I decided right then I was never gonna go to jail.”
The U.S. military was still segregated when Martin served in the submarine corps of the U.S. Navy. He didn’t have much trouble there, mixing with sailors who were white. He believes that was because submarines were so small “everyone just made the best of being cramped,” he said. He said whites and blacks were segregated to separate cars on the trains from one installation to another.
“They put all us black sailors in the cars up close to the engine,” Martin said, “Up there with the smoke.”
Martin admits to feeling “a little bitter” when he was turned down for Officers Candidate School, despite a year at Albany State University and high scores on his general qualifications tests.
“They told me there weren’t any vacancies,” Martin said, but I knew about some white sailors who got in right after that.”
Martin said that during his time in the Navy he never saw a black commissioned officer.
When the “separate but equal” doctrine was overthrown in 1954 it didn’t change much in the Albany area, Martin said. Before the notoriety of Martin Luther King and his followers, he was mostly unaware of any serious movements for change here or around the country.
“I think it was in the ’50’s I heard some things about what Gandhi had done in India, but that was all,” Martin said. “It turns out it was Gandhi’s non-violent ways that influenced the Martin Luther King marches.”
According to Martin, he’s never vilified people of another race, either then or now, saying simply that it was the “way of the times.” He just figured it would all get better eventually. He never marched or actively protested, he said, because of the possibility he could be fired from his job or face retaliation in other ways.
“There were a lot of very good white people,” Martin said, “There was a Jewish family my grandfather used to do handiwork for, and every Christmas they gave him a new suit. There were white people who would have let us eat at their restaurants, but the next day they would have had nothing but black customers. We can pass all kinds of laws, but you can’t legislate a man’s heart.”