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A brush with racism ignites a passion for civil rights

Pvt. 1st Class Robert Ricken, right, with his

Pvt. 1st Class Robert Ricken, right, with his friend Henderson in November 1953 when they were stationed at Camp Gordon in Georgia during the Korean War. Credit: Robert Ricken

During the Korean War, I took basic training at Camp Gordon (now known as Fort Gordon), Georgia. My tour of duty coincided with the 1954 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court of Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. As soldiers, we believed it would have no impact on our lives although we were among the first outfits to be racially integrated.

My company was made up of 25 New Yorkers and well over 150 Southerners. The men from the southern states were initially uncomfortable with our black soldiers. However, as time went on, I observed not only a more tolerant attitude, but a more open acceptance of each soldier based on his individual personality and character. During our 16 weeks of basic training, we became a model for how integration should work.

My two closest friends were a fellow from California, named Bertilotti and an African-American named Henderson who hailed from Mississippi. We did everything together whenever we were off-duty. When the weather turned cold, we decided to go into the city of Augusta and visit an army hospital that had an indoor swimming pool. The hospital was located a short bus ride from downtown Augusta.

The ride on the Army bus was uneventful, but the city bus ride to the hospital changed my life forever. The bus was right on time and empty when we boarded. I went to the rear of the bus so we could sit together. The driver shut off the motor and came to us and said that Henderson had to sit in the back of the bus and Bertilotti and I had to sit up front. He was polite but rather assertive. I started to argue with the driver but Henderson said we'd get arrested if we didn't do what the driver demanded. Henderson was familiar with the laws of the South.

As a person who rode the fully integrated New York City subway and buses, I never experienced this form of segregation. We were three U.S. Army soldiers in uniform and had to abide by the driver's directive or get off the bus. To this day, I wish we had left the bus that moment.

The incident made the day at the pool rather depressing. At first I couldn't talk to either of my buddies about the humiliating experience. We had little conversation, and we were left to our own thoughts. However, on the way back to camp, without any discussion, we decided not to take the city bus. Subjecting ourselves to further degradation was simply not an option.

We walked the 6 miles back to Augusta and took the racially integrated Army bus back to Camp Gordon. In my two years in Augusta, I never went into the city again.

From that day on, I followed and supported the activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of being uninvolved in the work of people like Martin Luther King Jr., I began to understand the importance of his message. We had to change a world that allowed my buddy Henderson to accept being a second-class citizen. I no longer could remain silent on civil rights issues.

Life experiences like the one I had in Georgia make me fully understand the recent issue with the Confederate flag. It remains an image of segregation and I fully identify with the strong feelings of my black American colleagues and friends. It's gratifying to observe some southern political leaders are finally getting that message.

The flag issue is an opportunity to teach our children about the activists who boycotted the segregated Montgomery buses, the college students who integrated the restaurants down south, and those who helped secure the voting rights for many minority citizens. Their work has made us a more caring and tolerant nation. It's time to rally around the American flag!

Robert Ricken,
Floral Park

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