Announcer: Hey, just a warning before we get started. This episode of Resistance deals with some heavy themes and has some strong language in it. We'll get started right after this short break.
Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: There's this photo, right? Even zoomed in, it's hard to pin down what I really love about it. It's in black and white, shot sometime in the 1950s. It's of a Black dude in his late teens with a mustache barely thick enough to even be called a mustache—it's peach fuzz, really—and he's leaning over as he sips what looks like ice cold water out of a whites-only water fountain.
Saidu: I can't tell if I love this photo because of his shirt, this kaleidoscopic print short-sleeve piece that looks exactly like something I would wear exactly the way I would wear it: halfway buttoned down, showing some chest, like he's on vacation somewhere in Jamaica or a villa in Tulum, not in the Jim Crow South, which is where he actually is. In South Carolina. But I also really love how unbothered he looks, starting directly into the camera. Like, his eyes are dead center, perfectly aligned with the peak of the water. And I think, just put aside the politics of this photo for a moment, I don't care who you are—from Beyoncé to Barack—drinking out of a water fountain is almost designed to make you look stupid. I mean, you're doing duck lips to try and suck in splashes of water from a small hose aimed at your face. That's not supposed to look good. But this man in this photo? He does. He makes drinking out of a water fountain look like something we should all try to do more of—especially ones marked "White Only."
Saidu: And for the longest time, I thought I was the only person who was thinking this hard about this photo. But then I found an article that was written by this man named Leslie McLemore for the website Black with No Chaser. I got Leslie to read me the opening paragraph to his article. He starts it off with the man in the photo's name.
Leslie McLemore: Cecil J. Williams. And Cecil J. Williams is a civil rights pioneer. However, for the purpose of this write up, I'm going to, at times, refer to him as Cecil "Fuck Yo Fountain" Williams, "Fuck Yo Fountain" Williams, "Fuck Yo Fountain," or Cecil. I like the name Cecil. If your name is Cecil, that lets me know you with the shits. That lets me know you are about that life. That let's me know you have a proclivity for drinking ice cold, delicious water, generously seasoned with racist white tears from a Whites-Only fountain
Saidu: That opening, I love that opening for so many reasons. The way you broke down his name, like—see? You right. Cecil, Cecil is a real-ass name.
Leslie McLemore: That's a real-ass dude.
Saidu: Like, have you ever seen anybody fucking with somebody named Cecil?
Leslie McLemore: Never. And it's also, like, just an old-ass, like, Southern Black name, you know what I'm saying?
Saidu: Yes! Yes!
Leslie McLemore: Right? It pops, right? Like "Willie" or "Otis" or some shit, you know?
Saidu: Right. Right. Right. That's the name when old Black men are, like, standing on the corner and they're telling stories about 50 years ago. They're like, "I was there, Cecil was there. Willie was there. We was all there."
Leslie McLemore: “We were all there. No motherfucking white folks and none of that goddamned bullshit!”
Leslie McLemore: This shit about to get good. Okay.
Saidu: Every once in a while, the photo of Cecil at the water fountain goes viral on social media. And that's how I came across it. And I think it keeps going viral because it's easy to look at that photo of Cecil and see yourself, or at least the person you wish you could be. It's aspirational. It's like a blueprint.
Leslie McLemore: You're like, "Damn, if I would—hell, yeah, I would do that same thing. I would do that exact same thing. Like, take a selfie of me, bro," you know? Like, that would be the perfect Instagram post.
Saidu: Oh, for sure.
Leslie McLemore: For the 1950s.
Saidu: Right? Right. Right. If Cecil had IG when this joint dropped? Yo! [laughs]
Leslie McLemore: He would be an Instagram influencer. He would be ...
Saidu: Oh, my God! Yo, Cecil. His DMs will be poppin'.
Leslie McLemore: What are you talking about, man? And they're like, "A good looking guy like that? Aw, come on, man."
Saidu: There'll be messages from Mabel, from Eileen, from Judith, from Willie-Mae.
Cecil Williams: I wish I had that shirt. That was a favorite shirt of mine. In fact, when the picture kind of got a lot of play on the social media, I went on eBay to see if I could find me a type of shirt like that, but to no avail.
Saidu: That is the man himself.
Cecil Williams: Well, good morning. My name is Cecil Williams. I am a resident of Orangeburg, South Carolina. I've lived here all my life.
Saidu: So you've never moved anywhere else and lived anywhere else, really, long-term?
Cecil Williams: At one time I founded a magazine, and I lived between Atlanta, Georgia, and South Carolina. But I have been here all my life.
Saidu: Wow. So you probably seen a lot of shit.
Cecil Williams: Yeah, exactly. That's—that's a mild way of putting it. Yes.
Saidu: Beyond modeling for this IG-quality photo in the '50s, Cecil really is a civil rights pioneer. He's an author, an inventor, and he owns and operates a civil rights museum in South Carolina. And he's a photographer too. A pretty well known one.
Saidu: When he was a teenager, he was already a stringer for Jet Magazine. He'd go on to photograph defining moments in his home state. He shot the moment the first Black student admitted to Clemson University walked on campus, captured iconic moments of young people protesting segregation in the South. And Cecil was arrested twice, just for doing his job.
Saidu: But he also shot weddings, family parties, and eventually he made his way to photographing JFK's presidential campaign. Cecil was so good at his work that Kennedy would invite him to fly with other reporters on his private plane. But before the private plane or any of that, he was riding back from the beach one day with his friend. They'd gone to cover a story of a Black man who was gonna dip his toe into the Atlantic Ocean as a form of protest—because back then, even the ocean was segregated.
Saidu: On their hours-long drive back home, he and his homie decided to stop real quick.
Cecil Williams: I was thirsty, and I stopped at a filling station. And I looked around and nobody was observing, and I took a drink out of the fountain. And my friend photographed me with my camera, and then I photographed him. Well, the water tasted no different from any other kind of water. In fact, I let it run for a second or two, because, you know, I wanted to make sure that if there were any contaminants in it, that it would be okay.
Saidu: What did you guys say to each other? Like, you see the water fountain, what do you say to each other? Like, is it, like, implied that you're gonna go do this thing? Or, like, what's the conversation?
Cecil Williams: Well, we were cracking up. I mean, we were jovial and in a very happy mood because, again, we are defying one of the laws of the state that is so absurd that it separates people according to their complexion and their race.
Cecil Williams: It was one of those things that we sometimes did. And I have to say kind of often. There were many times that I did similar things to this.
Saidu: Oh, yeah?
Cecil Williams: Of course, my parents were furious. They said, "You did what?"
Saidu: The more I talked to the man, the more I realized he's not just Cecil "Fuck Your Water Fountain" Williams. He's so much more. He's also Cecil "Fuck Your Movie Theater" Williams. When he was young, he'd sneak into a whites-only drive-in movie theater with his friends by camping out in a ditch where they could watch the whole movie without being seen themselves. And he's Cecil "Fuck Your Playground" Williams. He told me about a whites-only playground near his house that he'd ride by on his bicycle all the time.
Cecil Williams: Every day as I passed by that playground, I looked at the beautiful new painted slide, the swing sets, and those kind of playground things that go round and round that you sit on it.
Saidu: Yeah. Yeah, I know what you're talking about.
Cecil Williams: One day, one evening, coming back near dusk and trying to get back home before dark, I looked in both directions, and the playground was completely empty. I laid my bicycle down on the sidewalk, and I walked and I played on that playground for just a few ...
Saidu: [laughs] How did it feel playing on that playground?
Cecil Williams: Oh, it was wonderful, because we had nothing like that.
Cecil Williams: And I remember the colors. You know, being a vivid red and being new.
Cecil Williams: The few playgrounds that we did have in the areas were mostly connected to the schools. And a lot of times, they were old, dilapidated. And sometimes you would get splinters in your butt if you slid down the sliding board.
Saidu: And I'm just, like, imagining you, like, swinging yourself on white people's swings, like, turning yourself around on the little roundabout thing that's not for you. Like, sliding down white people's slides. Just not giving a damn about like, what could happen. Like, I'm guessing you maybe gave somewhat of a damn because you looked both ways before you did it but, like, the fact is that you did it. Like, why?
Cecil Williams: I did it, I guess, because I too wanted to enjoy some of the things that were usually reserved for white people in the community.
Saidu: Cecil makes these life-threatening decisions sound so simple, like it's the most logical thing for him or anybody to do. It's a luxury to know that we have people like Cecil to look back on, people who did the unthinkable over and over again, during a time where that meant literally risking everything, and somehow they did it without even breaking a sweat.
Saidu: I think that's why the "whites only" sign on the water fountain really has no power in the photo. It's reduced to a prop, an accessory to Cecil's undeniable flex. Even though it's right at the front, the sign on the fountain and all the hate and divisiveness it represents fades into the background of this black and white picture, and it pales in comparison to this man's pure, unshakeable confidence. For me, it's the drip, it's the steez, it's whole fuck-your-water-fountain energy that immediately jumps out whenever I look at that photo of Cecil.
Saidu: And so, in honor of that fuck-your-water-fountain energy, we're gonna do a series of episodes on people who live up to that. People who push back fear and doubt, and don't allow threats from the state, agents of the state, their parents, they don't let none of that shit hold them back. They want all the smoke, they go up against odds, and they look damn good doing it.
Saidu: I'm Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., and this is Resistance, with the first entry into our Fuck Your Water Fountain Hall of Fame. Let's get into it.
Saidu: So I asked our team of reporters to come up with people they want to nominate into the Resistance FYWF Hall of Fame. You know, people who can teach us something about how we should behave when we come up against some of the same kind of odds. And Bethel Habte, one of our producers, said she had the perfect person, somebody I'd never heard of. So we sat down for a little bit and she told me all about him.
Bethel: Have you ever been to New Orleans before?
Saidu: No, I always wanted to go. I wanted to take a train to New Orleans.
Bethel: A train?
Saidu: Yeah, I wanted to take, like, a train ride down there and, like, live the train life and write poetry looking out the window.
Bethel: Yeah. No, I went on one of those, like, long poetic train rides, and most of it is just like your legs hurt and your hips hurt. Don't do that. Just fly.
Saidu: [laughs] All right. Cool.
Bethel: All right, so this is a story that takes place in New Orleans in the late 1940s. So we're talking, like, Deep South, Jim Crow, segregation, all that.
Bethel: And one day, there's this young kid, Jerome Smith.
Bethel: Jerome. Mm-hmm. He's on public transport, and you know how public transport's set up. You know, Black people in the back, white people in the front. But it actually is one level beyond that. In some places, white people were so racist that there were actual dividers in between the white section and the Black section.
Bethel: So the white people wouldn't even have to see.
Saidu: To look at people.
Bethel: Yeah. He's in the back of the bus. He's not sitting in a seat—it's standing-room only. Keep in mind this is before Rosa Parks. And he's a kid and he's tired. And he ends up taking down one of the dividers.
Bethel: Tossing it on the ground. And having a seat in the white section.
Bethel: So you know what happens next. All the white folks in the front freak out.
Bethel: The bus driver stops. Like, that is what happens. The crowd is angry and yelling and really closing in on him. And the first person to touch him, to lay hands on him, it comes in the form of a smack on the back of the head.
Bethel: It's a Black lady.
Bethel: It's an old Black lady. She comes in from the back, and she's the one who's like, "What are you doing?"
Saidu: [laughs] Right, of course. Of course!
Bethel: She's like, "What are you doing?" She smacks him upside his head, drags him by the collar, and she tells all the white folks that she's gonna take him home and take care of this. Like, she's gonna give him a beating for disrespecting them. This is what she said. She said, "You should be ashamed of yourself disturbing these good white folks."
Saidu: Oh, no!
Bethel: And she told the people on the bus, the white people on the bus, "I'm gonna bring this little bad behind boy back home. Let me take care of him. So sorry this happened."
Saidu: No, Auntie! I thought you were a radical. What's going on? I thought there was some radical love type shit.
Bethel: Okay, so—so let me just tell you what happens next.
Saidu: Okay. All right. All right.
Bethel: So this older Black lady drags him off the bus, and they go into a store. Once all the white people are out of sight, she gives him a hug and starts crying.
Bethel: She does not beat him. She really just did that to save him, and get him out of that situation, because she did see something life threatening.
Bethel: And the thing that she says to him is, "Never stop doing what you're doing. Never stop taking that sign down."
Saidu: Oh, let's go! Let's go!
Bethel: [laughs] You know, he did not mean—you know, he literally was just a kid. He didn't mean for this to be a protest. But without knowing it, like, he really—he did that, and she saw that and told him what that was. And he took that to heart. It ends up fueling this fire of activism that would run through his youth, and then later on his whole life.
Saidu: When we come back, Jerome grows up and has his very own Fuck Your Water Fountain moment.
Saidu: What's good, y'all? Welcome back. So Bethel's telling me about her nominee for the Fuck Your Water Fountain Hall of Fame: Jerome Smith.
Bethel: So fast forward when he's, like, 22, 23, he joins the Freedom Rides. So he is one of these foot soldiers basically in this nonviolent movement. So by 1960, America figured out okay, yes. Making Black people sit in the back of the bus is wrong and unconstitutional, but Southern states were ignoring that, and the federal government wasn't doing anything to enforce desegregation.
Bethel: So in 1961, a bunch of very, very brave people—including Jerome—were criss-crossing the South, boarding buses in mixed-race groups, and just for exercising that constitutional right to sit wherever they damn pleased, very racist white mobs came after them at these stops along the way. They would beat them with fists, baseball bats, iron pipes, brass knuckles. They'd burn down their buses, and the cops, who would watch all this happen wouldn't break it up, but they would finish it off by arresting them and taking them to jail. So Jerome was one of the people who went through all this, and his injuries are really, really bad.
Bethel: And in spring 1963, Jerome ended up in New York City getting treatment for them. So he's in New York. He's in Lenox Hill on the Upper East Side. And randomly—this is May, 1963—he gets asked to join this group of activists to meet Robert F. Kennedy.
Bethel: Who was, you know, JFK's attorney general, his little brother.
Saidu: Right. Right.
Bethel: Imagine Jerome. He's 24, and he's been through some real fucking brutality, and he's seen this with his own eyes. And now he's going up to this, like, polished-up place in Central Park South to meet with this guy who could stop it all, who could do something about the kind of brutality he just faced. Like, this is the top cop of the land.
Bethel: RFK. And not only is he gonna be in this fancy Central Park South room with the attorney general of the United States, the room is also filled with a bunch of activists, including some kind of intimidating, successful Black stars.
Saidu: Like who? Who's gonna be at this meeting?
Bethel: So James Baldwin.
Bethel: Is the person who invites him. You wanna start there?
Saidu: Jimmy. Jimmy, as they call him.
Bethel: And Lorraine Hansberry. "A Raisin in the Sun."
Saidu: Mm. Oh, yes.
Bethel: But this is really like about to be Jerome's platform.
Bethel: What ends up happening is RFK is basically just running his mouth the whole time, and he's taking up all the oxygen in the room. He's, like, listing off all these data points from the Justice Department about all of the progress that's happening in civil rights. And Jerome is there, like, with steam coming out his head. Like, he's seething. He says, "I felt a sense that we were losing because so many folk have been banged up all over the South. It was a bad, bad situation." And he was just like, Kennedy is coming at this situation from, like, a very impersonal, numerical, high-level point of view. And also he's only focusing on, like, the good shit. So he held back as long as he could stand it, but he, like, cut through and interrupted Kennedy and he said, "Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don't care anything about you and your brother."
Bethel: He said, "I don't know what I'm doing here listening to all of this cocktail party patter." [laughs]
Saidu: What? He said that to Robert F. Kennedy?
Saidu: Wow. So he sees through the bullshit.
Bethel: Yeah. He says, "I've had enough of this little presentation dog and pony show."
Saidu: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bethel: "This isn't worth my time. Like, what are you doing with my time?" Basically.
Saidu: Right. Damn!
Bethel: And he said, "Kennedy was a cold-blooded politician. He had no real interest in the salvation of me or my people or anything else." And he said the government, you're all worried about the wrong shit. You're worried about, like, Black radicals, Black Muslims, you're worried about all that when the thing you really should be worried about is people like me who are practicing nonviolence and not seeing any progress through that kind of action. And our patience, our spirits cannot take that for very long."
Bethel: "Like, we cannot go through this degradation. You know, we can't just keep putting our bodies on the line for nothing."
Saidu: Right. Right, exactly. Damn, how do the other civil rights leaders respond? Like, they're probably looking, like, who is this? Who is this little man? Like, what is he talking about?
Bethel: Yeah. No, that's a good question. And it's interesting, because Jerome talks like a normal, like, New Orleans cat.
Saidu: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bethel: And you have, like, James Baldwin talking this eloquent—you know, playwrights in the room. And actually, like, what Lorraine Hansberry says, she said, like, she was just as sickened by that cocktail pitter-patter talk. And she said, "You've got a great many very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there."
Bethel: And she pointed to Jerome. Yeah.
Bethel: So they just basically, like, back him up.
Saidu: So they follow up. They follow up.
Bethel: And James Baldwin said, "He didn't sing or dance or act, yet he became the focal point."
Bethel: He said, "That boy, after all, in some sense, represented to everybody in that room, our hope, our honor, our dignity, but above all, our hope."
Bethel: So yeah, Baldwin was like, "Yeah. Him." Because yeah, I mean, we do put this emphasis on all of these esteemed, like, stars in Black history.
Bethel: When all those esteemed stars in this one case, anyway, were like, "Listen to this regular Black man from the South."
Saidu: Yeah. Who's just been doing the groundwork.
Bethel: Yeah. Who's been doing the groundwork. Who's been living this reality that you are talking about in abstract.
Bethel: And it's frustrating. And so, like, that meeting went on for three hours, and Jerome really came in there with, like, a cut-the-BS moment that just—the energy of that just spread throughout the room. So I mean, Kennedy, RFK, is really, like, shocked, obviously. Like, he's just like, "What? Like, I thought I was doing good!" Probably. I mean, that's how I imagine him. Jerome told RFK that just being in the room with him was making him nauseous.
Saidu: Oh, damn! Like, "Sir, your presence is turning my stomach."
Bethel: Yeah, basically. And then—but, like, one of the things that really, like, turns RFK's head is when Jerome says, "You know, what this is gonna mean, if my country is not going to defend me and my rights, I'm not going to fight for this country."
Bethel: And RFK was like, "You wouldn't fight for your country?" And Jerome says no. And this really hit home for RFK because he'd lost a brother to a war. And Jerome was trying to say, like, doing nothing will make people like him, like Jerome lose faith in America. So RFK is shook. And he's hearing this kind of loud and clear. And keep in mind, this meeting was in May. May, 1963.
Bethel: And, you know, RFK is JFK's brother. President of the United States' brother. And a few weeks later, in June, 1963, JFK goes on TV and addresses everyone in America, and tells everyone in America that he'd be sending a civil rights bill to Congress.
Bethel: That he was going to finally try to pass a bill that would address racial equality.
Bethel: For Black folks. And that's what ended up—what becomes the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Bethel: So, you know, can't prove anything, but Jerome, you know, he made an impact that day.
Saidu: Can't prove that Jerome is directly responsible for the Civil Rights Act, but it did have a really, really good, frank conversation with the brother of the president.
Saidu: Damn, Jerome! Jerome sounds like a real one.
Saidu: Is he still alive?
Bethel: Yeah. He's been working at a community center in Treme in New Orleans. And actually the cutest fact I looked up is that they call him 'Big Duck' because the kids that come to the community center just, like, follow him around.
Bethel: I just think it's really cute.
Saidu: [laughs] So what is it about Jerome Smith that you love so much? What is the fuck-your-water-fountain energy about Jerome that you really appreciate?
Bethel: Okay, I appreciate—I really appreciate, like, two things.
Bethel: One, that he didn't bend himself to the surroundings he was in. Like, he was in this fancy-ass Central Park South room with important people, but he never stopped being himself in that setting. And the other thing, like, that touches me about it is also, you know, there is this veneration over nonviolence, and that being the strategy that kind of turned the tide. And that's true, but it only works when people who are practicing that nonviolence don't lose hope, and don't lose hope in the idea that their efforts aren't going to waste. That the people who are seeing it are actually gonna do shit about it, as opposed to say like, "Oh, too bad. So sad."
Bethel: It's like, we're gonna get something out of this nonviolence, but also it's wearing thin. If it's seen as, like, not working, you know, you're gonna have to answer for Black anger on the other side of that.
Saidu: On the other side of that. They work in concert.
Saidu: It makes me—you know what? The fact that Lorraine Hansberry's in the room is like—and, like, Jerome has this kind of outburst at RFK, it's like, something about that feels like a little poetic, given that, you know, Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, based off of Langston—well, not based off of but, like, the name is inspired by Langston Hughes' poem. And that poem is literally what happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up?
Bethel: Or does it explode? [laughs]
Saidu: Or does it explode? Right?
Saidu: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat, or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load, or does it explode?” And Jerome literally explodes in that room.
Bethel: He explodes.
Saidu: He explodes.
Saidu: The dream that is being deferred right now is our rights and, like, if you keep playing around and acting like it's just numbers and it's a game then, like, this—we're going to explode. That's the answer to all this.
Saidu: So, like, you need to really take this seriously.
Saidu: Jerome motherfucking Smith.
Saidu: My nigga. [laughs]
Saidu: These days, Jerome Smith lives and helps out in his hometown of New Orleans. We tried to reach him, but folks at the community center where he's known as Big Duck, don't have his number. They just see him when they see him. If you see him, please let him know he's our first induction into our Fuck Your Water Fountain Hall Of Fame. And Cecil J. Williams, the patron saint of this award, he runs a civil rights museum in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Please go visit him when things open back up.
Saidu: We're gonna keep doing these over the next few weeks, so if you have someone who you think we should really know about, who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, little-known heroes who did some daring shit and looked good doing it, hit us up. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line FYWF.
Saidu: Thank you so much for listening. Resistance is produced by Bethel Habte, Aaron Randle, and Salifu Sesay Mack. And hosted by me, Saidu Tejan Thomas Jr.
Saidu: Our production assistant is Navani Otero. Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh. We're edited by Lynn Levy, Lydia Polgreen and Brendan Klinkenberg.
Saidu: Mixing, scoring, and magic by Catherine Anderson. Additional scoring and theme by Bobby Lord. Our music supervisor is Liz Fulton. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer and Teiji Mack.
Saidu: Fact checking is by Rosemarie Ho. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants. Credits music is "Final Form" by Sampa The Great. Special thanks to the homies, W.J. Sunday and Aliya Yates.
Saidu: Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. All right, see y'all in two weeks.