January 3, 2013

Issac J. Bailey | Singleton wasn’t afraid to live

I’ll never forget the Rev. H.H. Singleton’s podium.

I’ll never forget the Rev. H.H. Singleton’s podium.

He was a former head of the Conway Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and member of the organization’s national board, a local icon with statewide and national reach.

He died earlier this week after a long fight against Alzheimer’s.

I’ve attended all sorts of press conferences, on the steps of Myrtle Beach City Hall, in a meeting room at Coastal Carolina University, at the airport, at the convention center, conventional places where the media is called for a group’s announcement of big news.

Only Singleton could hold court in his driveway and expect a gaggle of media members to show up.

Every time he did, he’d pull out his podium and chat with members of the gathered mass.

He’d crack bawdy jokes about old men and sex.

He’d ask a reporter or curious onlooker about their mother’s health.

He’d play the role of the favorite uncle you always wanted to visit because he’d regal you with the best-told stories.

Then the cameras would begin to roll, the microphones pointed his way.

He’d step behind his podium and a deep baritone voice would replace the softer tone he had just been using.

There would be no jokes, only a clear, concise message about the latest civil rights fight of the day, often littered with words so big they would have the assembled wordsmiths scrambling to consult dictionaries.

He did not like Conway’s juvenile curfew and let the city’s leaders know it.

He did not like the disparate treatment of Harley Week and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest and let Myrtle Beach leaders know it, with words and lawsuits.

He believed it was a travesty that a teacher could be fired for using his First Amendment rights and sued the Horry County Board of Education after he was dismissed for leading protests against the Conway High School football team’s decision to start a white quarterback over a black one.

He got his job back and a monetary settlement to boot, establishing forever rights many Horry County Schools teachers don’t seem to realize they have or are afraid of using.

Singleton was many things, but that’s the one thing he wasn’t: afraid.

That’s what I admired about him most, as well as his ability to retain his full humanity in the glare of the spotlight.

I remember having a passionate disagreement with him one day about the latest headlines he had sparked.

The next, he called to make sure I was being treated fairly by the newspaper. If I wasn’t, he was ready to make more headlines in my defense.

He understood the difference between peace and justice in the way many of his most vociferous critics never did, that sacrificing justice for peace is always a lousy trade.

He got some things wrong.

His statement about potential racial profiling shortly after a white Horry County police officer was beaten to death on a the side of the road by a black motorist was tone deaf at best.

He didn’t claim the officer had deserved the beating or that he had in fact profiled. But bringing up that issue at all in that context seemed crude, if not cruel.

The NAACP’s tactics in its fight to equalize what the organization believed was unfair treatment between biker weeks that attracted mostly black and mostly white participants were questionable as well.

Some restaurants were literally wasting money staying open during Bikefest because the crowds kept customers away from those establishments, but the NAACP sued those that closed any way.

While there were racially-tinged differences about the way the public viewed and treated those festivals – this newspaper found plenty of instances independent of the NAACP – Singleton’s leadership made it feel as though he was taking a cleaver to a problem that called for a scalpel.

And his in artful challenging of Conway’s iconic football coach Chuck Jordan led to unnecessary problems and unwanted national attention.

Despite those missteps, his agitation made it harder for the kinds of overt acts of discrimination he lived through as a child to be repeated.

That accomplishment is taken for granted by too many – black, white, Latino – who benefit from the racial progress men such as Singleton helped forge because they simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Many years ago, I heard the theologian Tony Campolo speak. He said he was sad for people who would rather tip toe through life to reach death safely instead of living out their God-given purpose, despite the unease and potential hardships they’d have to face to stay true to that path.

Had he known Singleton, he would not have been sad for him, because Singleton didn’t tip toe.

He high-stepped.

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