Monday, January 16, 2006

Remembering the Sixties on MLK,Jr's Day of Remembrance


Digging around in a box stored with the socks and underwear I pulled out a few souvenirs of the Sixties and got my gifted daughter to make this picture. These and some books are about all I have to show for my days as a young fellow traveler and civil rights activist.

It would be great to tell some war stories about getting in trouble, spending time in jail or being beat up for being in the thick of the struggle, but I was not that person. Oh, I did spend a lot of hours on picket lines before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, an activity for which I was put out of my cheap off-campus room with two hours' notice. Like a handful of others in the minority I participated in a few sit-ins, but they were without incident and never made much of a stir except in our emotions and those of the unlucky waitresses who had to deal with the tension of the moment.

I didn't go to Washington for the historic march. That took time and money, neither of which I was in a position to spend. But someone did give me this button which I have treasured over the years. Now that history has taught us to hate LBJ because of the Vietnam Conflict (which fell into his lap with Kennedy's assassination) it is easy to forget that it was he who ramrodded the Civil Rights Act through Congress in the wake of Kennedy's death. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow since the two of them didn't like each other politically. I lost track of the Congress of Racial Equality after leaving school the first time, and never had anything to do with either SNCC or the SDS. Many of us from the deep South mistrusted both of those groups because they were too revolutionary and potentially violent. And I mean that in the Marxist sense. Such thinking was and is anathema to non-violence. CORE seemed to be marginal but less prone to talk of violence.

When race riots broke out in 1964 in New York, New Jersey and a few other places, I took part in a rather large march in Tallahassee, Florida. My roommate and I had made a banner from a bed sheet which said "Discrimination Must Go" in black letters. He held one pole and I the other. We were so inexperienced that only at the site of the march did we realize that to prevent the wind from making an unmanageable sail of our creation we had to borrow a knife and slice holes for the air to blow through so the banner could be seen. Many of us regarded the NAACP as a group that was not active enough, but at that march they bought in two busses of people from Jacksonville where they had been dealing with either a riot or threat of one, and with experienced, tough leadership they took over the Tallahassee demonstration against the wishes of local organizers, some of whom then refused to participate because the parade route, originally planned to go to the state capital, was diverted instead to a segregated stadium which turned out to be a staging area for a rally in support of NAACP.

That evening there was a loud THUMP to the side of the garage apartment where we lived. Someone had found our rolled up sign, broken it in half and thrown the thing like a spear at the side of the apartment. It startled us and made us uneasy about going to sleep, but that was all that happened.

Despite my unglamorous, unremarkable participation in what we called The Movement, I came away from the experience thoroughly radicalized. I was able to experience first hand the shock of having people I though were my friends stop speaking to me because of what I was advocating. My father, who had lost a brother in WWII, never fully appreciated why I returned home after that first year at school and had my draft status changed from 1-A to 1-A-O. Today's generation, thanks to the "all-volunteer" army, doesn't know anything of the basics of conscription.

I doubt that most people have any idea that it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who coupled the war in Vietnam with racial discrimination at home. There was a bizarre contradiction between black soldiers being sent to war, but having to face segregation when they returned...unless they were killed first. It seems so obvious now, but at the time it was an accepted reality. And before anyone gets too self-righteous and starts to climb on to that all-in-the-past horse, they might better read today's Washington Post article about racial discrimination in France. Is there anyone who still fails to connect the dots between the riots and racial discrimination? Probably. It is too easy to blame religious differences and ignore other factors like race and the economic penalties that come with social segregation.

I could write all night about the discrimination I have personally seen over the last forty-plus years. But that would be both boring and counterproductive. I learned long ago that arguments do not change the hearts of anyone. Hearts and minds, to borrow a popular line, are changed by actions and experiences. A warm public greeting of a black family or individual into a white circle of people, whether in the church or neighborhood or in the workplace has a far greater impact on good race relations than all the arguments in the world. And when as a manager I was finally in a position to advance the status of subordinates in the workplace, I was very deliberate in putting together a veritable United Nations of staff. Easy to do in the food business, but sometimes in spite of covert but not benign institutional racism.

When his Letter from a Birmingham Jail was being circulated on mimeographed paper, with dimly printed second- and third-generation copies of copies, I got hold of a copy and was personally convicted by what he wrote.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
On this day of remembrance, this is the document that needs to be read and studied. The famous speech marked a stirring moment for the movement, but it is this letter that lay the foundation for what he was to say later. And it was soon after reading this letter that I was moved to look for another church because the all-white Christian churches which I had been attending were not on the side of the angels and would not be for several years to come.

6 comments:

Kobayashi Maru said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, this is a voice crying out in the wilderness - someone who has actually been there.

One observation that absolutely jumps out at me in the modern context: If we substitute "Arab" or "Middle Easterner" or "Middle Eastern woman" in the place of 'Negro' in King's letter and think about those who would prefer a stable situation and gloss over the gross injustices there, then this segment convicts the left today in its plea for inaction on behalf of the many who would like their own freedom and democracy and removal of oppression (e.g., sharia law) now not later.

more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom...

The only differences IMHO are that we're talking about national rather than state borders and there is not a higher tradition and body of law there to which we can appeal. I.e., it is as much 1860 vis the Middle East as it is 1964. Each time in history played its role in undoing a great injustice. King would never have had a foothold in the South if Lincoln had not done what he did.

Peggy said...

Just wanted to say thank you and I enjoyed your site. I'm also a child of that era, now looking for an avenue to channel my anger at the continuing inequities. Sometimes I slip into my passive state of "there's nothing anyone can do" and then back out into "I've got to do something".
Peggy

samrocha said...

HI! Great Blog! I linked over here on a Blog search, today I posted an article on a perspective on MLK Jr. Day, check it out if you’d like… I've enjoyed reading through your archives, I’d love to establish a reciprocal link with your blog, let me know if you’re interested:

www.debaterelatepontificate.blogspot.com

OBloodyHell said...

Your comment:
> starts to climb on to that all-in-the-past horse, they might better read today's Washington Post article about racial discrimination in France. Is there anyone who still fails to connect the dots between the riots and racial discrimination? Probably. It is too easy to blame religious differences and ignore other factors like race and the economic penalties that come with social segregation.

I believe you are too quick to forgive Islam for the actions done by its proponents. France certainly has many non-Muslim immigrants, but it was not them who were rioting there. It was not the non-Muslims burning cars, buildings, and attacking people. It was the followers of Islam, entirely or almost so.

That The French failed to properly integrate the immigrants into their society is not argued, but Islam added a strong element of violence to the situation which those of other creeds did not choose to follow. That is an indictment of Islam, pure and simple.

The change in race relations across the USA occurred as a result of the actions of people like Dr. King, not the violence of Black Muslims like Malcolm X.

All violence does, when dealing with an essentially decent people performing an injustice blindly, is set people to agreeing with the racists and segregationists, conceding, "You know, you're right, they can't live with us" (no matter how wrong that is, it is how humans react).

The problems you suggest regarding black soldiers, BTW, were not limited to the Vietnam War, and this shows how calling attention to an injustice works to override the racial canalization in essentially decent people:

"My forebears were Confederate... Every factor and influence in my background -- and my wife's, for that matter -- would foster the personal belief that you are right.
But my very stomach turned over when I learned that negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.
Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President, I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this."

- Harry S Truman, after WWII -

Abbas Raza said...

I missed this last year, so am glad you posted a link to it again. I am very moved and impressed by your moral courage and mature judgment even as a young man. Bravo!

Hoots said...

And thank you, Abbas, for reading and leaving a comment. Your 3Quarks group is relentlessly fertile and has been essential daily reading for me going on two years.

I haven't deleted or tried to argue with that comment ahead of yours, incidentally. There's no reasoning with such people. I leave it there to illustrate the mind-set, wishing I could say something constructive to penetrate what might be an intelligent mind.