The new voter: A Southern black man stands to be counted
Amos ‘Duke’ Griffin Sr. knows racial violence, disaffection, and homelessness. Now, on his path to a more stable life, he elects to vote for the first time.
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“You couldn’t vote in Mississippi in those days,” Duke says. “Most of it was survival. When I was a young kid, we wouldn’t even think of voting.”
In 1962, the father paid his son’s way to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), a historically black college in Greensboro.
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Duke arrived just two years after four A&T students sat down at a local Woolworths counter and asked to be served. The protest – which grew to hundreds of people and lasted six months – electrified nearby colleges and launched other civil rights protests across the Old South.
“It was an exciting time,” says Duke, who says he knew the four activists – Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain at the university. Still, he wasn’t moved to cast a vote. That, he now says, was a mistake.
“When I was a young kid, I wasn’t thinking about voting. But as I got older and when Martin [Luther King Jr.] came through and started fighting for freedom, everything started going into perspective, but I just didn’t get out and vote,” he says. “Basically, I wasn’t thinking about it. I was a lone wolf.”
President Kennedy’s assassination during Duke’s second year in college was also a blow to whatever interest he had in politics. Kennedy brought the races together, he says. “He pulled them in close. When Kennedy got shot, everything started falling apart.”
The killing of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, only reinforced that idea. “After Martin passed, I said, ‘Well, what’s the need to vote? The vote ain’t going to count,’ but that was stupidity, ignorance,” he says.
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Despite his newly minted business degree after graduation from A&T, he didn’t find the path to the higher-end jobs he’d expected. “People said that I was overqualified. People didn’t like to hire a smart nigger,” he says.
Still, he always found work. What he learned about cooking from his grandmother helped him work off and on as a cook. “All my uncles could cook, and my daddy, too.” (A classic Duke dinner: Soak pork chops in Italian dressing, add garlic and onions, bake at 350 degrees F. until it’s cooked how you like it.
Meanwhile, peel and boil yams, add sugar, cook on medium until almost done. Add Pet or Carnation evaporated milk, a little nutmeg, and some vanilla flavoring. Make corn bread with jalapeño peppers on a griddle, as you would pancakes. Skip dessert.)
In 1969, he was working as a cook for Hot Shoppe and living near the A&T campus when National Guardsmen stormed Scott Hall, killing a student and wounding two others. “I was used to the killing,” he says. “In Mississippi, it was nothing to hear about people getting lynched and killed, just as if it were legal.”
Duke also recalls the 1979 massacre in Greensboro, when five anti-Ku Klux Klan marchers were shot and killed by members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party. The six Klansmen and Nazis charged with the shootings were acquitted by an all-white jury. These events, too, were disillusioning to Duke.
“It made you feel as if you wanted to go out and kill all white folks, but over the years you let God handle it, because He’s still in control,” he says.
But his disaffection from politics deepened. When his Hot Shoppe job moved to Washington, D.C., in 1965, he got a closer look at national politics – and found it wanting.