Monday, January 15, 2007

The Never Ending Struggle for Civil Rights

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 happen 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 Wilmington (Delaware) Morning News or Evening Journal.

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 Philadelphia Bulletin Sunday 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 daddys 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. It was a week that I shall never forget.

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 took my Daytona tan down to The Valley, a poor Wilmington 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 and minorities in general, but he also would agree with my mother and father.

He would understand that a toxic vein of racism bubbles just beneath the surface of American society that has been a lightning rod in what has passed for a debate on immigration reform. He would bow his head in shame over a presidency that can barely disguise its hostility to minorities (except at election time, when it rolls out the biennial edition of the Compassionate Conservative Mistrel Show), and has sought to undercut the most basic rights through an Orwellian attack on civil liberties.

Just the other day, the senior Pentagon official in charge of terrorism suspects attacked lawyers at top law firms who are doing pro bono work for prisoners
at Guantánamo Bay. He urged truly patriotic companies to stop doing business with these firms, becoming only the latest administration official to reveal a contemptible disdain for the core American rights that we are supposedly fighting the War on Terror to protect.

* * * * *
And so Kiko's House celebrates Martin Luther King Day today with a certain familiarity with the late great preacher and all of that unfinished work.

The pieces that I have posted below do not focus on more familiar civil rights and wrongs, but are just as important.

One post is a tribute to a dear friend, Chuck Stone, a legendary African-American journalist who worked for Dr. King and has campaigned tirelessly for civil rights for over six decades.

I'm tipping my hat to Chuck because he, like Dr. King, understood that civil rights is a whole lot more than being able to order a Coke at a five-and-dime store lunch counter or being able to vote. To that end, I include excerpts from a newspaper column he wrote in 1981 on an Irish Republican prisoner of war being held by the British in Northern Ireland's feared Long Kesh Prison.

The other post is a selection of excerpts from what I consider to be Dr. King's greatest speech after his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Dr. King's subject that day in 1967 -- a year to the very day that he was assassinated -- is not Selma or Montgomery, but the Vietnam War and his declaration that "a time comes when silence is betrayal."

Which pretty much brings me back to where I started.

-- Love and Peace, SHAUN


Anonymous said...

Wonderful and important remembrances, Shaun (as well as present-day context that is sadly accurate and appropriate) - thanks a lot.

Sustenance Scout said...

Terrific details, Shaun. Thanks so much for all this; feel free to check out my newest post at BEYOND Understanding. I can't think of a more appropriate series of posts to highlight in honor of Dr. King. His speech regarding Vietnam rings so true so many years later. Maybe this time we'll learn a lesson or two. Like I say in my post, one can only dream. K.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Shaun. Thanks for sharing.

When King was killed I had recently graduated from High School in January and lost my first love in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive, January 31. Those days left a lasting impression on my young mind and heart. I've been a pacifict ever since.

Btw, my son is home from Iraq. He is ok, but is carrying scars of war.