When I was first cutting my teeth in the newspaper business, my editors sent me out on "house ends," visits to homes where I would interview families of interest because something very bad of interest had happened to them.
It was the late 1960s and many of these house ends were the result of the death of a young man, usually an Army or Marine Corps infantryman who had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. Most were African-Americans and most were from families whom one could describe as being from "the wrong side of the tracks."
After a while, these visits took on a certain sameness.
Although I once found myself in the horribly awkward position of having arrived at a house before the uniformed bearer of the bad news telegram, I always was welcomed into these humble homes.
I always was treated with respect because these were good people and they knew that I would give their now departed son or brother a respectful sendoff in the next day's newspaper.
The living rooms always were modest and always had a photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a place of honor, often the same color rotogravure portrait scissored from an old magazine.
I have no idea how many times I sat on a lumpy couch, pen and reporter's notebook in one hand, a snapshot of the victim in the other, with the wizened Dr. King looking down on me as I listened to the story of a young life snuffed out by a war that none of us understood and few supported. I do know that too many of these young men perished because of a lethal one-two punch -- their skin color and economic status. They were not white and did not have have college deferments, as did Dick Cheney, or a daddy with friends in high places, as did George Bush.
* * * * *It was the spring of 1968 and I had taken a week off to join college friends in Daytona Beach, Florida. Our sunburns had not yet turned to tans and we had barely finished the first of several cases of Old Milwaukee beer (with pull tops, a recent innovation) when President Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek another term. The Vietnam War had worn him down -- and out.
And then four evenings later there was a commotion.
"They killed the nigger! The nigger's dead!" cried a group of drunken college students as they danced and whooped in the parking lot of the motel adjacent to ours. "They killed the nigger!"
My Old Milwaukee high evaporated in a flash. We turned on the television. Dr. King had been gunned down at a Memphis motel. I wanted to hurt those students. I wanted to throw up.
We drove north the next morning. As we approached Washington, there were huge black clouds of smoke over the city. We overtook a convoy of troop carriers filled with National Guardsmen, rifles slung over their shoulders. The riots following Dr. King's murder were well underway, and the New York Avenue corridor of tenements, flophouses, liquor stores and churches in Northwest Washington was in flames. It was hard to drive around the city in those days, but we found a detour.
The rioting spread, and the next night. I was again in newspaper reporter's mufti and took my Daytona tan down to The Valley, a poor neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware where young blacks were skirmishing with the city police and National Guard. There were fires and intermittent gunfire from snipers atop the row houses. At one point a bullet whizzed over my head. Yes, just like in the movies.
I was still shaking when I got back to my apartment the next morning. I cried over the inhumanity of my fellow man, for my black friends and for Dr. King.
* * * * *My tears came honestly.
My mother's father was a German Jewish immigrant who worked tirelessly for civil rights and went out of his way to hire blacks at his department store before he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. He took his oath of citizenship so seriously that he paid a printer to publish a pocket-sized booklet with the Bill of Rights, an American flag on the cover, which he distributed to high school civics classes.
My grandfather started a more modest business and devoted his energies to bringing together the leaders of various Wilmington churches to raise money to get Jewish refugees out of the Reichland and into welcoming homes in Wilmington before Hitler slammed the door. Several of our relatives died in the death camps; it wasn't until three years ago that I learned that a cousin had survived and was living in New Zealand.
My parents took up the civil-rights mantle. To use the parlance of the time, some of their best friends were Negroes. My father was the campaign manager for the first black elected to the local school board. That and my parents' habit of inviting black friends to swim in our pool alienated them from some of their white "friends;" one neighbor forbade her children from playing with my brother and sister and I.
My parents went on bus trips to Washington for the big antiwar protest marches of the late 1960s. My father, never a religious man, found the experience of bearing witness on the Mall with several hundred thousand other people to be deeply spiritual.
Like me, they were heartened by the sea change in civil rights in the 1960s and 70s that Dr. King and his acolytes worked for so tirelessly. But they believed until the day they drew their last breaths that America remained a deeply racist society, just not as overtly so, and that much work remained to be done.
If Dr. King were to look beyond the grave today he would be cheered by the accomplishments of his brothers and sisters and minorities in general, but he also would agree with my mother and father.