Trying to pick up his dry cleaning, the 16-year-old black teenager was stranded in a white Miami neighborhood when the buses stopped running.
He was hoping to hitchhike when an unmarked police car pulled up. “See that alley over there, boy?” one of the cops said. “Get your ass up in there. Now.”
He obeyed, and the unmarked police car followed him in.
Alone in an alley with no witnesses, the young man saw a revolver protruding through the car window, pointed at his head. He heard the two police officers talking inside the car.
“What should we do with this boy?”
“Find out what he’s doing here.”
“Should we shoot him here?”
Frightened and furious, the boy explained how he’d ended up where he was. The cop behind the wheel asked him if he could walk all the way back home — the 50 blocks to “colored town” — without looking behind him. The boy said he could.
“Think about it now,” the cop said. “Cause if you look back, just once, we gonna shoot you. Think you can do that?”
He said he could. So the long trek began, with the young man glancing at the reflections in store windows to see that the unmarked car was, in fact, slowly following him all the way. For 50 long blocks. When he reached the corner where he lived with relatives, the police car pulled out and sped away.
“Fifty blocks is a long time to think about what’s happening to you, to stew in the insane injustice of it all,” the boy said later. “But it’s also a good long time to internalize messages such as discipline, independence, the value of character and toughness of mind.”
The year was 1943. The boy’s name was Sidney Poitier, and 21 years later he would win the Academy Award for best actor.