Contributed courtesy of Bob Gest, III from his forthcoming Autobiography
In 1964 I was selected to attend the junior officer professional military school for the USAF, Squadron Officers School, in Montgomery, Alabama. I arrived in town on a Sunday evening, driving my new automobile, a fire engine red, 1964 Grand Prix Pontiac. This car had been ordered from the factory in Michigan and I had flown there to pick it up. After checking in and having nothing to do, I decided to ride downtown. Since I was young and foolish, and just returned from overseas, it never occurred to me where I really was – a key oversight since I was also African-American and Male. Anyway, in my driving, I spotted an Elks Club which was clearly in the Black Neighborhood, and decided to stop in for a while. I had a couple of beers and by then the time had rolled around to shortly after 11pm. I started back to the base, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and less than halfway there: a police car ran alongside and forced me onto the sidewalk. After stopping, I began to exit the car only to be confronted by what can only be called a redneck cop who had his hand on his pistol which fortunately was still holstered. When I asked why had I been stopped, the officer began cursing and asking me for my goddamned driver’s license and registration.
After a quick perusal of these documents, he informed me that he was arresting me for drunk driving. I protested that I was not drunk and he again began cursing and calling me names and demanded that I exit the car and walk down the white line in the roadway. I did so and walked the line down and back without a misstep. He then called me a smart nigger and announced that he was changing the charge to reckless driving. I then had the temerity to suggest that it was he who had forced me off the street onto the sidewalk and that I had not been driving recklessly. He again began to curse and call me names and ordered me to get into the police car as he was taking me down to the station. I asked what was going to happen to my car. That apparently was the wrong thing to do as he put his hand on his gun again and told me in loud and profane language that it was not my goddamned problem. About this time, I suppose, much later than it should have been, I realized the position and location I was in. So, I got in the rear of the police car and was driven down to the police station.
Upon entering the station, I was directed to the Desk Sergeant who told me to empty my pockets. I began to do so and as I did, my wallet which was the trifold type, opened and my military ID card was right on top. The Desk Sergeant peered over his glasses at the wallet and then looked up at me; looked down again and then looked up again, and then in a slow drawl, asked me if I was in the military. I answered, “Yes.” He looked again, and asked me if I was an officer. Again, I responded in the affirmative. He then asked if I would like to call the airbase. I heaved a small sigh of relief as this was the first civilized treatment I had received since this bizarre situation had first begun. I said yes, I would very much like to. I was then directed to a phone where I placed a call to the Air Force Base and was connected to the Security Police (then called the Air Police). As I began to tell my story, the Air Policeman interrupted me to ask if I was Black. When I answered that I was, he said that I did not have to say any more; that this sort of thing happened every weekend; that I had been stopped solely because I was Black; that it was not right, but it nonetheless happened all the time. Further, I was advised to tell the Desk Sergeant that they would be right down to pick me up. I got off the phone and told the Sergeant what the Air Policeman had said and much to my continuing amazement, the Pride of Montgomery locked me in a cell.
Now, not only had I never been in jail, I certainly had no idea that I would be placed in one which was already inhabited by a man who looked and smelled real bad. In addition, he was walking around mumbling to himself. I did not say a word to him and merely clung to the bars, hoping against hope that the military police would arrive soon. After about 15 minutes, I heard loud voices outside and down the hall. I distinctly heard the Air Policeman remonstrating with the Montgomery police that the Lieutenant should not have been put in the cell; that they knew the military was enroute to pick him up. Anyway, in a few minutes, the police came and released me and I followed them back to the desk. When I arrived at the desk, the military policeman introduced himself and suggested that I retrieve my wallet and said let’s go. I got my things and as he turned to leave, I began to follow him out. The military policeman turned and said to me, aren’t you going to get your car? I had completely forgotten that I ever had a car. I sheepishly said I suppose so if it was okay. They said of course it is okay; after all it is your car. So, I got my keys and started to my car but at this point I had the presence of mind to suggest that I go ahead of them, just in case.
On Monday morning early, when I should have been in class, I went to see the Base Staff Judge Advocate, the military law section. I explained to them what had happened the night before and then one of the Lieutenant Colonels said he would make a call and see if the case could be heard in the Judge’s Chambers. The answer was yes, so the Colonel and I hurried down to the Court House. As we entered the court house, we had to walk through the court room where many, many people were waiting for the court session to begin. Nearly every one of these were Black people. We went on to the Judge’s office and the Colonel spoke to him about what happened the night before.
The Judge listened patiently and when the Colonel finished, the Judge looked up at the ceiling and said in a solemn voice, Well, I hear what you’re saying, but the office wrote up the report and we are going to have to charge the boy with something. At this point, I began to sputter; really having difficulty saying anything I was so surprised. The military lawyer asked me to quiet down. Then the Judge, still looking at the ceiling, said, Well lessee what is the least little bit we can charge him with? How about failure to yield or something like that? The military lawyer said, Whatever the best you can do, Your Honor. Then the Judge said that will be $12 plus $2 court costs. The military lawyer looked at me and said, pay the Judge. I again began to sputter, but the lawyer said again, pay the man. I did so and the Judge dismissed us. As soon as my feet hit the pavement outside the court house, I lit into the Colonel about how wrong that was and unfair, and so on. The colonel reminded me that I could have insisted on a trial, but I would have been found guilty and there would have resulted a court record. Further, that although this was not right, this was the best he could do at this time; that things were going to change, but right now, the best thing for me to do was what I had done. Thus was my introduction to Alabama, Squadron Officers School, Maxwell AFB.