Friday, February 20, 2009

Bob Shetterly, the only liberal in Levy County

I recently went digging through files I haven't looked at in years—and I learned something slightly sad that I never knew. More about that after a newspaper article and a snippet from a second one:

from the St. Petersburg Times, Monday, March 7, 1966: Section B, Page 1
Florida Report: Levy Liberal Unusual
by Bob Stiff, Times State Editor
Florida is noted for many unusual things, but Bob Shetterly is one of the most unusual of all. He’s a liberal who lives in Levy County.

There is nothing quite so rare as a liberal in Levy County, a north Suncoast county of perhaps 14,000 persons.

Shetterly didn’t start out as a liberal. He places himself at somewhere between a moderate and a conservative when he moved to Levy County about nine years ago, but even that proved quite liberal for the political spectrum of this area of Florida.

Owner and operator of Dogland, a U.S. 19 tourist attraction in Suwannee River, Shetterly recalls, “I noticed things after I had been here for awhile, but I just kept my mouth shut. Then I saw how Negroes were being treated around here and the many injustices there were in many areas so I opened my big mouth.”

“And he hasn’t closed it since,” his wife adds.

Shetterly, frying chicken at the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise restaurant he operates in conjunction with Dogland and a self-service gasoline station, agrees with a hearty laugh.

People in Chiefland approach Mrs. Shetterly and say, “You don’t believe in all those things your husband says, do you Mrs. Shetterly? I just can’t believe you do because you’re too nice a lady.”
“I tell them, ‘up to a point,’ and I tell him (motioning to her husky husband) that he talks too much.”

Shetterly has joined civil rights pickets in Gainesville, spoken up for equal rights at every conceivable meeting place in Levy County and is a tireless writer of letters to the editor columns of area daily and weekly newspapers espousing his many causes.

This wins him the same popularity among his neighbors that might be accorded Martin Luther King.
One former friend says it this way:

“Now, Bob is always talking the way he does at every meeting around here and every time, there’s somebody around to listen—even if it’s only one or two people—and we don’t mind that. He goes over to Gainesville to picket with the colored people and writes all those letters to the newspapers and we don’t mind that either. He don’t convince us any and we don’t convince him, but he believes that way and it’s okay.

“But now he done something that has really cut it. This is a religious community here and the folks didn’t like it none when the Supreme Court came out with the thing against prayin’ in the schools. The kids had always said a little prayer at school and just kept on doing it because what harm was there in it really?

“Well, Bob, he goes over to the School Board and tell them they’ve got to quit prayin’. Now folks didn’t take to that at all and I don’t think Bob’s got three friends left this whole county. He brung it on himself.”

Shetterly regrets the prayer issue. “I didn’t want to get into this, but we’re Unitarians and I just didn’t want my kids having to say those prayers every morning. The Supreme Court said it’s wrong and it’s the law of the land. If we break this law by ignoring it, which law will we do this with next?

“I went to the principal and he said I ought to go to the superintendent. I went to him and he seemed to be agreeable, but said it ought to be brought up to the School Board. So I did.

“One member wanted to just stop the prayers in the classrooms where my children were and that really would have satisfied me. But he couldn’t even get a second to his motion and then somebody said the law isn’t meant for atheists and Unitarians and I got my back up.”

Shetterly says he gets blamed for everything now. “If a Negro traveling to Miami from New Jersey stops at a restaurant in Chiefland, everyone figures I must have sent him. I don’t want any trouble. I just want everybody to operate under the same laws.”

When the powerfully built Shetterly walks down the street, few acknowledge his cheery “Good Morning.” His children have lost most of their playmates. He receives many unsigned threatening letters and middle-of-the-night obscene telephone calls. But he persists.

One of Shetterly’s latest letters says:

“Some people in the community still believe I am responsible for CORE and the NAACP being in our area. As I understand it they are here for four reasons. (1.) More than a dozen restaurants in Levy County have been reported as failing to comply with the law. (2.) There are no Negroes in the Chiefland school and there are Negroes riding a bus more than 50 miles daily to a school in Williston. (3.) There is a low percentage of Negroes registered to vote and few, if any, on the jury roll. (4.) There is no Negro or biracial organization in the county to reflect the views of the approximately 33 per cent of our population that is Negro.

“I can accept no responsibility for any of these conditions. These organizations are not kept out by force or threats. They are kept out by working to eliminate the conditions that would bring them.
“I have done everything I could to take steps that would have effectively prevented their becoming active in this area. My restaurant obeys the law. I actively tried to get at least token Negro enrollment in the Chiefland School. I tried nearly three years ago to get a bi-racial committee set up through the chamber of commerce. I have met quietly with county officials to encourage that Negroes be placed on the jury roll.

“I sincerely believe that had I been even partially successful in my efforts, CORE and the NAACP would not be active in Levy County today—yet I am the one blamed for their appearance.
“I cannot change my moral commitments to win your approval or to avoid your abuse and curses,” he concludes.

But sticking his chin out this way doesn’t make the Negro community look on him as a leader. The self-educated high school dropout laughs and says, “They think I’m a nut. They never saw a white man carry on this way before. They just don’t know what to think.”

Becoming reflective, Shetterly says, “I never intended it this way. I thought I could change things by reasoning with people and, you know how it is, the more you argue, the more you strengthen your own convictions.

“My arguments aren’t effective anymore. Nobody will really listen because their minds are poisoned against me, but I can agitate. And I’m doing quite a bit of that.”

Asked if he is the only liberal in Levy County, the bespectacled businessman puts down a spatula and says, “Gosh, I guess I am. I’ve never heard of another one anyway.”

Then brightening, he grins. “If you ever find another one, let me know, would you? I can use the help.”

* * *

from the Gainesville Sun, Wednesday, March 9, 1966
Levy School Prayer Issue: Prefers to Let Courts Decide

At a meeting of the board last September, B. E. Shetterly of Chiefland had requested that the board “comply with the law” and eliminate devotionals from the public schools.

It was reported yesterday that Shetterly had taken his children out of the Chiefland school and that they are now living with a relative in Wisconsin and attending school there.

John Peace, School Board attorney, said that since Shetterly has taken his school out of the Chiefland school, the ACLU probably would drop its threat of a suit.

* * *
The sad thing? Dad would have loved to see the ACLU bring that suit. But our family could not get fire insurance because word was out that the Ku Klux Klan would burn us down. He had to choose between his kids and a greater justice. He chose his kids. We were sent to finish the school year in Minnesota (not Wisconsin—all newspaper accounts have errors). If Dad ever had a second thought about that, he never mentioned it.

We left Dog Land after that. The Klan never showed up, maybe because Dad let it be known that he had a shotgun and was prepared to use it. The school was integrated, and the daily prayers ended. Whether that would've happened the same year if Dad had stayed silent, I can't say. All I know is that he was on the side of justice, and I'll always be proud of him.

P.S. I'm just as proud of Mom. She opened some of those letters and answered some of those phone calls and stayed brave before her children.