Thugs, pimps, “players” and wanna-bes — you can all sit down. This is what a real “bad” man looks like.
The only thing tougher than being black in America in the 1950s was being black and being first.
Charles L. Gittens was both.
Mr. Gittens was the first black man ever accepted into the US Secret Service as an agent, and the first to head up its prestigious, high-profile and high-stakes Washington office.
He suffered a fatal heart attack July 29. Word of his passing only became widely known in the last week.
I don’t know if the guys who wrote the novel and screenplay for “Shaft” had Mr. Gittens in mind, but he very well could’ve served as a model for their fictional Harlem detective.
Because from all accounts, Charles Gittens was a “baaaad mutha-shut-yo-mouth.”
He joined the Secret Service in 1956. Two decades later, at an age when most supervisors are content to run their offices from the office, he was on the streets with his agents, literally chasing down and tackling counterfeiters.
Waiting for his younger agents to catch up didn’t seem to bother him any.
Still, when you think Secret Service, you think Presidential protection, something Mr. Gittens had a hand in for every President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter.
Do you know what kind of a badass you have to be to make a living stepping into Harm’s way on behalf of the most powerful men on Earth?
Especially in an era when being black in America could still get you lynched?
Even after retiring from the Secret Service in 1979, he wasn’t done. Instead, he joined the US Justice Department — as a full-time Nazi hunter for the Office of Special Investigations.
Not too bad for a man who almost got passed over by the Secret Service because the guy who gave his oral exam claimed he couldn’t speak in coherent sentences.
You can read his full story in the Washington Post obituary here.
Traveling with Presidents means you get to see a lot of world — even if the “sights” you’re looking for aren’t the kind you find on souvenir postcards. I would loved to have talked to Mr. Gittens about some of his travels as part of Presidential security.
And not just the dangerous stuff.
Remember that now-famous film clip of Marilyn Monroe breathlessly serenading President John F. Kennedy for his birthday, with all that that implied? Somewhere in the darkness, out of frame but not out of range, was Charles Gittens.
I can’t imagine what he must’ve thought of all that, but whatever he thought, he kept it to himself.
Actually, I suspect there were a lot of things associated with his job that Mr. Gittens kept to himself.
Like his feelings about going into a Dallas restaurant as part of President Lydon B. Johnson’s security detail — and being told he couldn’t be served because he was black (he eventually did get served).
As far as his treatment within the Secret Service was concerned, Mr Gittens said he never felt discrimination or racism on the job. Maybe he was just lucky in that respect. Maybe he worked in offices where his white colleagues were more enlightened.
Or maybe they were just afraid he’d kick their asses if they disrespected him.
In any case, he seems to have been the exception in that regard. Others have spoken of white field agents telling “Negro” jokes in their presence, or having a noose hung over their workstation.
Then there was that episode in 1993 when a half-dozen black secret Service agents, in uniform, were “dissed” at a Maryland Denny’s restaurant — and that was 14 years after Mr. Gittens had blazed his pioneering trail.
“Mr. Gittens’ legacy of accomplishments will live on with all of those who knew him, as well as all of us who benefited from the path he created and the standards he set as the first African-American agent in the Secret Service,” said US Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan.
“His contributions to this agency and this country cannot be overstated.”
A fine sentiment, although it makes you wonder why, to date, a search of the Secret Service Website finds no mention whatsoever of Mr. Gittens or his passing.
Maybe they’re still mulling over that oral exam.
Charles Louis Gittens would have been 83 years old on Aug. 31.