1963 BIRMINGHAM CHURCH BOMBING VICTIM
Words do not begin to describe the horror of the continuing assault on our black brothers and sisters, but as inadequate as my own words may be, I offer a few anyway.
The murder of of a pastor and eight congregants, six of them men and three women, in a mass shooting at an historically black Charleston, South Carolina church by a white gunman is, for openers, symptomatic of three deep sicknesses pervading American society:
* A racism that remains just as virulent today as it did 50, 100 or 150 years ago and a chronic inability to deal with let alone come to terms with it.* A proliferation of guns for the sole purpose of inflicting harm and a chronic inability, let alone a true desire, to confront their lethal use by a legion of fetishists.* And a shadow epidemic of mental illness and a chronic refusal to acknowledge its deeply destructive impact on not just those among us who are confronted by demons, but what that says about all of us as a people.
We do not yet know if the Charleston gunman, identified as Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was indeed possessed by demons. The usual red flags will, of course, appear in hindsight, and his Facebook photo showed him wearing apartheid-era patches of the South African and Rhodesian flags.
But it almost doesn't matter, because Roof certainly was a coward to enter the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a house of worship where blacks worked to end slavery in the early 19th century, and slaughter innocents studying the Scriptures. As well as apparently acting out a deep hatred against African-Americans and other racial minorities that many people feel.
This societal malaise could no longer be pretended away with the election of Barack Obama, who knew the pastor who was killed, and the visceral animosity for the president that bubbled to the surface from countless dark places, as well as condoned and even tacitly encouraged by some politicians. And enough from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and other so-called leaders who say they don't understand the killer's motivation.
So we have yet another case of domestic terrorism, but heaven forbid that anyone call it that, or that this tragedy be "politicized," which will be the predictable accusation of denialists, most notably Republican bigshots. Paging Lindsay Graham! Paging the NRA!
But in the end are we not all responsible?
* * * * *
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 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 ruckus.
"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 stupid 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 back to work as a newspaper reporter. I took my Daytona tan down to The Valley, a poor Wilmington, Delaware neighborhood 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 and civic organizations.
He 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 believe 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, including the president, as well as minorities in general, but he also would agree with my mother and father.
Finally, I think back to what Bobby Kennedy said so eloquently the day after MLK was gunned down and only a few weeks before his own assassination:
"Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded."