You won’t find Fred Wilson’s name in the annals of the centuries-long struggle for equal rights in the United States of America.
He wasn’t assassinated as a thorn in the side of the white majority, like Dr. Martin Luther King. He wasn’t killed by a Black assassin in an internecine power struggle, like Malcolm X. His death with a racist cop holding a knee to the back of his neck didn’t galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement. He didn’t become a household name, like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or or Jacob Blake.
In fact, I wouldn’t have remembered Wilson’s name myself, had my friend Michaela Plante not taken the trouble to find that old clipping for me after I mentioned the incident on Twitter a few weeks ago. I was pleased to see that my memory of a 50-year-old clash was essentially pretty accurate.
Mercifully, Fred Wilson did not die. He wasn’t even badly hurt. But he was the subject of my story, a story that appeared in the Miami Herald on Sept. 4, 1969, under the headline “The Night Terror Came to Their Door.”
Give some credit to the person who wrote that headline: This was 1969 in Florida, after all, and it took some guts to describe Fort Lauderdale police officers and National Guardsmen as the authors of that terror.
I was a very young reporter at the Herald that night, a few weeks short of my 23rd birthday. In a little more than two months, I would be drafted into the U.S. Army, and by January 1970 I would be a deserter, living in a skid row hotel room in Vancouver and wondering where my next meal would come from – but that was an unimaginable future on this warm evening in Fort Lauderdale.
“The incident began at about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday,” I wrote, “when police responded to reports of gunfire in the Lennox apartment building at NW 24th Ave. and Eighth St., in the troubled all-Negro northwest section of the city.”
(Today I find the phrase “all-Negro” acutely embarrassing, but it conformed to Herald style at the time, and was actually considered an enlightened, progressive word in place of the despised “n*****” or “colored” that preceded it in common usage.)
I had a notebook and a pen and I was with a radio reporter from a local station, following a Florida Highway Patrol armored vehicle called “the monster” down the darkened street, with National Guard soldiers and police officers on either side. The streetlights were out and there were taunts and threats from Black teenagers defying a curfew outside a three-story apartment building farther down the street. It was the third night of racial disturbances in the Black neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale.
“The incident occurred on the third night that police were exposed to nerve-breaking tension and long hours of trying to keep a disturbance from turning into a full-fledged riot,” I wrote, offering a partial excuse for what was to follow.
Suddenly, a light popped on in our ground-floor apartment to our left. About 15 police officers and National Guardsmen charged the apartment and shattered the glass front door and the picture window in the living room with the butts of their shotguns. Wilson, a slender, 27-year-old Black man, was dragged out of the building. He was dressed but barefoot, and when he stepped on the broken glass from the shattered door, he leapt into the air.
One of the Guardsmen swung his stick and clubbed Wilson in the chest. Wilson was hustled away, mumbling, “yes sir,” and “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’, sir.”
I was about to follow the sweep down the street when I heard a baby crying inside the apartment and decided to investigate. Inside I found Wilson’s wife, Annie, with a six-week-old baby Taitisin over her shoulder as she tried to steer her two-year-old, Salenda, away from the broken glass which was scattered all over the floor.
Annie Wilson was weeping. “We just as well have died and gone where we’re goin’,” she said to me.
As we talked, I could hear the noise of another door or window in the building being shattered. I asked her what had happened. She explained that the family was huddled in the dark in the apartment, trying to keep quiet, but the baby had been screaming. She had asked her husband to get a bottle from the kitchen, and that’s when he turned on the light, and a moment later, police officers and guardsmen had burst through their door.
I did my best to comfort her, but she could not be comforted. “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy,” she said, over and over. “What’re we gonna do?”
“Your daddy’s gone, child, and he ain’t never comin’ back,” she told her uncomprehending daughter.
Fortunately, Fred Wilson was coming back. He was charged with resisting arrest and inciting a riot and released the following day on $1,000 bond so that he could return to his job as a taxidermist.
A couple of weeks after, I testified at his trial, and Fred Wilson went free. There was an embarrassing scene in the corridor outside the courtroom as a tearful Annie Wilson tried to thank me and her two-year-old hugged my leg. I had no illusions about what had happened. If a white reporter had not witnessed what happened, Wilson would be facing a jail term for things he didn’t do.
Back in the Herald’s Broward bureau after, I was confronted by a female reporter who accused me of making it up to keep a guilty Black man out of jail. Her fury was a sight to behold. It was racist to the core, and she had no ability at all to see herself or to understand how very wrong she was.
Half a century on, nothing has changed. That furious woman and her descendants put a racist president in the White House and for millions of white Americans, hatred is a way of life.
In the long, bloody struggle for racial justice in the U.S., the Fred Wilson story – a man beaten and charged for trying to fill a baby’s bottle is his own apartment – isn’t even a footnote. Cops still attack and murder Black people with impunity. Justice for Black Americans remains as elusive as it ever was.
If we back up a little and think about it, why was such overwhelming force brought to bear on a street in Fort Lauderdale that night? Why was an armored vehicle deployed at all? Nothing was happening except that a few teenagers weren’t obeying an artificial curfew and they were guilty of taunting the police, nothing more. No one was throwing things at the police, no one was shooting. Why were officers so keyed up they would break a window and a door and attack a man in his own apartment?
And why has so little changed after all these years?