Speaking out in solidarity
In a vivid show of support for the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation, a crowd of many colors gathered Saturday morning in the downtown Apalachicola.
Beginning at the corner of Market Street and Avenue, beneath the blinking light at the intersection, and continuing along one side of the street to past the offices of Dr. Ryan Pharr, the density was like that found on the Saturday of seafood festival.
But what floated down the avenue weren’t brass bands and pirate ships but an air of solidarity with the many protests that have emerged against police brutality and in affirmation of equality and justice for all citizens.
“One lady counted over 200 people there,” said Elinor Mount-Simmons, president of H’COLA (Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola) which organized the event.
“I was very, very pleased,” she said. “The attendance, the support, the unity displayed, the enthusiasm of those that were there, it was really fantastic. It blew me away.”
Mount-Simmons was careful to note that the protest was not directed at law enforcement within the county, making a point to emphasize “the great support” that the event received from Apalachicola Police Chief Bobby Varnes.
“He was just wonderful from the beginning, from the planning up to the very end,” she said. “He was incredibly helpful.”
Also in attendance at the event was Sheriff A.J. Smith. After the protest ended at noon, the sheriff’s office hosted a separate event, a Unity in the Community hot dog and hamburger lunch, at the Game Room.
Mount-Simmons said the Saturday morning protest was intended to show a level of support for others around the world who have taken to the streets in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis, Minnesota of George Floyd, at the hands of police.
“We don’t live in a vacuum here in Franklin County,” she said. “We’re part of a bigger picture. There still is racism, not just police brutality. It was targeting racism and that is in Franklin County.”
She said the protest was helped in large part by the generous donations of people who brought their own signs, and some extras for others, as well as poster board for those who wanted to make them.
“We had water donated, we had masks donated, and sanitizers donated to ensure safety,” she said. “We were complicit to the best of our ability with CDC guidelines.”
The event was comparably quiet until a 71-year-old Apalachicola woman took it upon herself to rouse the crowd by leading a chant. (See video)
“I didn’t get a sore throat,” said Jean Alston. “I was a little apprehensive. When I got there it was just quiet. I thought ‘Let’s get some noise going here.’ It was just too quiet. There were so many people on that corner and nobody saying anything.”
“I have three black grandsons, age 5, 7 and 22, and this thing is something I gotta support,” she said.
Alston’s life story, that dates back to her birth in Apalachicola in 1949, serves to illustrate some of the dynamics of the civil rights struggle.
After attending Holy Family from the first through the fifth grades, she was sent at age 10 to a Catholic orphanage in Mobile, Alabama, staffed by a Polish-American order of nuns. There she was educated until graduation from high school in 1966.
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had been instrumental in integrating federal offices, and so in 1966, the former Jean Martin was recruited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After her graduation, she embarked on her first train ride, en route to Washington D.C. to assume a job as a clerk-typist.
She ended up stranded in Aniston, Alabama for two during a big riot there in 1967, but eventually, on April 1, 1968, four days before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was assassinated in Memphis, she began her new job.
“I had to walk through a fiery city,” she recalled.
Alston began work as a messenger for the office of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and worked for the bureau for 22 years before a divorce prompted a change in her life.
In 1990 she went to work in administrative roles for the CIA, that’s right, the Central Intelligence Agency, in McLean, Virginia, where she worked until her retirement at age 55 in March 2004.
Following that she did contract work for the state department, until finally entering a fully retired life in Dec. 2018.
“I said ‘I’m turning 70, it’s time to rack it up,’” she said.
Five years earlier she had bought the house she grew up in back in Apalachicola, at 148 Sixth Street. She now lives here year-round, staying active by walking around the neighborhood.
“I walked 90 minutes this morning,” she said Monday. “It’s just my DNA. And I stay away from bread. It tends to stay on me.”
Alston’s brother is Leonard Martin, a pastor at the Love Center, and he’ll be one of many local clergymen who are planning an event for the middle of July.
“We are helping them with a town hall-style setup,” said Mount-Simmons. “They are inviting city officials, ministers, and local people to take part in a town hall where people can ask questions, and share concerns.”
On behalf of H’COLA, she reiterated her gratitude for the participation Saturday morning.
“A big thank you to those who made contributions to the cause,” she said. “We really appreciate them and those who took time out of their day. They recognized the significance of what we’re doing and gave us their three hours.”