The Fire That Failed

I’ve never written of this episode in the history of Marion County, Fla., but then, I don’t think anyone else has either.  However, so much time has passed, with most of the witnesses long gone, I feel it’s time to mention it for posterity’s sake.

Back in the late 1960s, there was a very active chapter of the Weathermen in Tampa which planned (and occasionally completed) wicked assaults on Whitey.  But, apparently, their most cherished dream was located not in Tampa, but 90 miles away in the small but politically important town of Ocala.

Their plan was confided to Ocala blacks, who were frightened into silence.  Except for one, a maid at the home of one of the town’s leading citizens, who loved “that nice Lady” enough to tell her of the plot.  The lady told her husband, who told the sheriff and a few others.  It was quickly decided the news should NOT be spread to the public.

Of course, friends told friends (confidentially). So it was that our next door neighbor at the lake –Dr. E.G. Peek (known as Mr. Ocala, by many for his civic responsibilities) told Dad about the expected riot–“and have a gun handy in case the perpetrators create a real riot and start a general uprising.”   So it was, on that evening, Dad with his shotgun and I with the family .22, sat for hours awaiting what we knew not.

Meantime, things were happening elsewhere.

About 8 p.m. a large bus (from Tampa) was stopped by the sheriff on the edge of the square.  It was filled with “protestors,” and the sheriff asked the leaders the meaning of the visit.

Of course the sheriff knew they planned to fire the businesses which surrounded the square, while at the time they were doing that (and at that time most of the businesses in town were located on the square) they expected local blacks to set fire to nearby homes.  The rioters were highly pleased with themselves, and when they noted the sheriff had only two or three assistants, they started to push out of the bus.

The sheriff blew a whistle and shouted, “Look up there!”  Instantly every roof seemed filled with men, all bearing rifles, and all pointed at the interlopers.  The bully boys got back in the bus, headed east for Silver Springs, where they were met by about 20 armed men (former soldiers).

The group headed further east for easier pickings.  They couldn’t know that as soon as the posse knew where they were headed, they would call that sheriff, who would hustle them away.  In this manner the finally reached Daytona Beach.  It was too late.  Very late.  The fired up a couple of empty buildings and headed back to Tampa–on a different road.

Now here is the unexpected part of the story.  It never appeared in the Ocala Star-Banner or any other paper–or radio station–or even the minuscule TV available.  Although hundreds (maybe thousands) knew, they kept their mouths shut since they knew the Weathermen would devise something deadlier, if they were mocked.

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