Untold story about a man, an injustice, the South

March 24, 2001|By Gregory Kane

FURMAN YORK was just out of high school and about to start his freshman year at Mercer College in Macon, Ga., when he decided to invite his friend, Richard Scott, an African-American, to a cookout at the summer house Furman rented with his older brother, Cliff York.

Silly Furman.

The year was 1954. The date was June 22. Just one month and six days earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down one of its most famous decisions when it declared separate schools for blacks and whites illegal. The reaction across the white South was one of resistance, and no state resisted more than Georgia, except perhaps Mississippi, which surpassed Georgia only slightly as a "hang-'em-high" state.

Cliff York had just graduated from Mercer and was waiting for his fiancee to complete her studies there - she would graduate that December - before they headed to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Cliff sold air conditioners door to door that summer. He arrived home with co-worker Ralph Roure to find Furman and Richard playing croquet and grilling steaks in the back yard. Cliff and Ralph joined in the fun.

But this is the South in 1954 we're talking about. You can pretty much guess what happened next. Cliff received phone calls about the "n-r" in his back yard. Soon, three police cars stopped in front of the house. Two officers came to the door.

"We got a report that you got a n-r in this house. Is that true?" the officers asked him.

"I have some friends here in my home," Cliff replied. "One is a Negro, not a n-r."

Just where did Cliff dredge up such chutzpah, you might ask. He was a Georgia native, from the small town of Clayton, in the Appalachians in the northern part of the state. He knew the customs and mores of Georgia and the rest of the South. But the philosophy and ethics major had come under the influence of Dr. G. McLeod Bryan, his professor in Christian Ethics. Bryan was one of a handful of white Southerners who thought outside the box, who refused to go along with the Jim Crow mentality of the day. Cliff York was one of several white Southerners who joined him.

The police arrested Cliff and Richard. The warrant - which they got on Cliff's insistence - indicated the charge was "suspicion of a misdemeanor." But one of the officers had given him the real reason: Cliff York, as the renter of the home, had broken an "unwritten law."

They'd have made as much sense if they had charged both men with conspiracy to commit brotherhood. Cliff knew that in this white, suburban neighborhood of Macon he saw blacks in back yards all the time - doing laundry. It was the York brothers treating an African-American as a human being that caused the ruckus.

Richard was released when family members bailed him out. Cliff's friend Roure suggested Furman call a lawyer, who paid $50 to have him released. After completing his studies at Crozer, where Martin Luther King Jr. studied for his divinity degree, Cliff was a pastor at churches in Coatesville and Scranton, Pa., before forming Mass Media Ministries, an ecumenical organization that provided churches and synagogues with films and videos dealing with social issues. MMM's headquarters were in Baltimore, where Cliff moved with his wife, Janice York, in 1966.

Cliff told his story to some fourth-graders at John Ruhrah Elementary School in Baltimore's Greektown last month. The pupils and teacher Peter French felt the tale was so compelling they wrote a play based on it. They performed it at the school yesterday. Cliff and Janice were invited to attend.

Cliff and Janice were engaged when the incident happened. Janice had just arrived at Mercer for summer classes.

"I kept hearing about this terrible person," she recalled. "I didn't tell them he was my fiance." Janice said one of the terrible things she heard about Cliff was the N-word, followed immediately by "lover."

Cliff might not have known it at the time, but he immediately became part of the untold history of the South. He was no Northerner who came South, preached the benefits and virtues of integration and then headed home to safety. He was part of a Southern white minority that, in the 1950s and 1960s, openly and bravely defied segregation.

He could have gotten himself off the hook the night of June 22, 1954.

"Look, just let us take the n-r and you won't have to be involved," the police officers offered him. Cliff said no dice.

"I knew from living in Georgia what would happen to Richard," he said yesterday after the play. "I couldn't be a party to that."

Ten pupils formed the cast and crew for the play. More than 100 children attended two showings. After each performance, cast, crew and audience swamped Cliff York for autographs.

Looks like these youngsters know a genuine hero when they see one.

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