‘I tasted freedom’

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Freedom tasted delicious to Bob Booker. 

Like many who taste something delicious, Booker wanted even more of the liberty he’d discovered when he left Knoxville for three years as a young man to serve his country.

“When I went into the Army, I was free for the first time in my life,” Booker said in a documentary posted last week on the social media sites of Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Booker, local Civil Rights Era icon and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, took part in a discussion with Jacobs as part of a new documentary series called “Knox Narratives.”

The first of the series featured a discussion between Booker and Jacobs about a range of topics ranging from the Civil Rights movements to Booker’s experiences growing up as a Black man in Knoxville during the age of segregation.

Booker, an author and historian of the Black community in Knoxville, grew up in the “Bottom” in East Knoxville. He went into the Army after he graduated from Austin-East High School and later helped stage anti-segregation demonstrations at restaurants and movie theaters. He went on to become a state representative, mayoral candidate and Knoxville City Council member.

“What was it like growing up as a Black man in Knoxville?” Jacobs asked at the start of the show.

Booker said it didn’t affect his psyche except he knew as a Black person that he wasn’t allowed into the Tennessee Theater and could only go to Chilhowee Park once a year.

He credited his lack of awareness to teachers who had been through the “school of hard knocks” with racism and went easy on the children they taught.

His later experiences in the Army, however, changed his life as they led him to become involved with the growing Civil Rights movement.

“What made me become involved was Uncle Sam,” Booker recalled.

He had grown up with separate water fountains and separate theaters for Blacks and Whites. For the first time in his life, however, he was able to do what he wanted to do while he was in the service. He had discovered what freedom means firsthand.

When he came back to Knoxville in May 1957 it was back to square one.

“I tasted freedom in Europe for three years,” he said. “I got back to Knoxville and that freedom was gone all over again.”

Booker enrolled in Knoxville College and became involved in student government. He then started protesting with other Blacks at the time, leading demonstrations at local theaters and conducting sit-ins at lunch counters.

“People like you were taking an enormous risk,” Jacobs commented.

Booker agreed, saying there was a lot of risk.

He told one story of picketing a theater on Gay Street and then being arrested. He was put in the back of a “wagon” and the driver told him, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you colored people.” 

He said the driver accused him of being duped by communists.

There had to be some humor involved, though, at times, Booker said. On that same trip, the driver pulled over to put someone who was drunk in the wagon.

“I said, ‘Hey, you can’t put that White man in here with me.’ He said, ‘We don’t discriminate in here buddy.’ You had to laugh at the silliness of it.”

Out of the Civil Rights movement people started talking to each other, he said, and found they weren’t much different. Black people liked to talk sports or maybe watch westerns, just like White people. 

Booker acknowledged that society still has more to do when it comes to getting past racial strife. He said it’s clear that some racism still exists when Blacks can get pulled over for just driving a nice car.

Jacobs said he felt that everyone needs to sit some things aside.

“I think we relate to each other as human beings first and everything else second,” Jacobs said.