Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, March 2, 2006. Interview U-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growing up with little awareness of the civil rights struggle in Mobile, Alabama

Fillette recalls that he was largely unaware of issues related to race and racism during his childhood in Mobile, Alabama. Fillette grew up during the late 1940s and 1950s and was aware of efforts to desegregate schools; however, he argues that he was very sheltered and had little knowledge about the negative impacts of Jim Crow segregation on African Americans in his community. Indeed, Fillette was sent to a private military school following the <cite>Brown</cite> decision of 1954 because his parents feared the ramifications of integration.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, March 2, 2006. Interview U-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SARAH THUESEN:
So you would have been growing up in the early civil rights era.
TED FILLETTE:
Yes.
SARAH THUESEN:
How did that affect your worldview?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, we were very sheltered from the immediate parts of the civil rights movement, because most of the important things in the early 1960s were going on in Montgomery and Birmingham and in the rural black belt area outside of Montgomery. For the most part, I was largely unaware of it. I can vaguely recall being at a Key Club convention in Birmingham and seeing the police take Dr. Martin Luther King away in a police wagon, but I did not understand what he was doing and why they were arresting him and the importance of that at the time. That's just because I was in a very sheltered, segregated environment, for the most part. It wasn't until I went to some international Key Club conventions, where there were a lot of northern kids that were more aware of the civil rights movement than we were, that questions came up about how we could tolerate racially-segregated schools. I thought it was a very provoking question for me. Of course, it was something that my parents had basically engineered without my knowledge of it. I was largely unaware of what was going on in a serious way until I got to college.
SARAH THUESEN:
I'm curious, when you interacted with kids from the North and they asked you about the justification for segregated schools, what at that time would you have said, do you think?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, I didn't have—I frankly was very ambivalent about it. We had candidates from Alabama that were running for these international offices and we were preparing them to answer questions in these political debates for the office. Our standard line that was developed by some of the older people was this is a matter for the states to determine. So it was sort of a states' rights rationalization, which had been essentially the argument used by Governor [George] Wallace and the governors of Mississippi and Arkansas to justify their segregated school systems. Other than hearing that pat answer, I did not understand the implications of that and I certainly didn't understand what the fourteenth amendment might mean. I didn't understand what the Brown v. Board of Education decision meant and its implications. There was no desegregation lawsuit going on in the state of Alabama. There wasn't an attempt to integrate the public schools in Mobile until the late 1970s, after I was finished with college. So, I didn't really learn much about what was going on until I really left Alabama.
SARAH THUESEN:
You mentioned the Brown decision. Do you remember when that ruling came down?
TED FILLETTE:
I did not have any real awareness of it. I think the first awareness I had about what was going on was watching my parents watch the National Guard enforce the school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas on television. I think that's what precipitated my parents' decision to take me out of the public schools in 1957 and enroll me in a racially-segregated military school, because I think they thought that if it was happening in Little Rock, that it would be in Mobile soon thereafter.