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
It was the
late 1960s and many of these house ends were the result of the death of
a young man in Vietnam, usually an Army or Marine Corps infantryman who had been
drafted or given the choice between prison or the military by a judge. Most of these young men were African-Americans and virtually all were
from poor families.
After a while, these visits took on a certain surreal sameness.
I once found myself in the horribly awkward position of having arrived before the uniformed bearer of the bad-news telegram, I
always was welcomed into these humble homes. I
always was treated with respect. 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.
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 Sunday Philadelphia Bulletin magazine.
have no idea how many times I sat on a lumpy couch, ballpoint pen and spiral-bound A6 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, few
supported and Dr. King adamantly opposed because he understood, as few others did, that there was a common link between the civil rights and peace movements.
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 a Dick
Cheney, or a daddy with friends in high places, as did a George W. Bush.
It was the spring of 1968 and I had taken a week off from the house-end grind 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.
killed the nigger! The nigger's dead!" cried a group of drunken college
students from Tennessee as they danced and whooped in the parking lot of the motel
adjacent to ours. "They killed the nigger!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
My tears came honestly.
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 for jobs that did not involve dustpans and mops. 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.
parents took up the civil-rights mantle, and 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 backyard pool
alienated them from some of their white "friends;" one neighbor forbade
her children from playing with my brother and sister and I.
We went on bus trips to Washington for the big civil rights and antiwar protest
marches. 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.
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, perhaps just not as overtly so, and that much
work remained to be done.
Dr. King were to look beyond the grave today he surely would be disappointed. Although he would be cheered by the
advances in civil rights, and there have been many, he certainly would wonder if the progress he and his brothers and sisters bled and gave their lives for is being reversed. Even with an African-American president, that is a fair question.
One bright spot is the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a logical contemporary successor to Dr. King's crusade. It's fair to say that a
Chicago police officer would not be charged with the murder of Laquan
McDonald, as well as the resolution of some other recent high-profile
cases where there has been a semblance of justice -- even if it has been
justice delayed -- without the consciousness raising of the movement.
Barack Obama has pretty much avoided addressing racism head on during his presidency, and that's okay with me. The lives of black Americans have improved during his two terms because of his trademark quiet determination, not fire and brimstone, while I find offensive the notion that just because he's black things would or should automatically be better. It's going to take a lot more than eight years to undo hundreds of years of racism.
That racism is so
deeply rooted in our culture that Republicans like Donald Trump, who is receiving endorsements from white supremacist groups, and that's just fine with him, can put down their dog whistles with relative impunity and deliver blatantly anti-minority messages. In fact, the Republican Party has become America's biggest hate group with the first black president its chief target. Which begs a question: Is it Obama's fault that the U.S. is more openly intolerant? Of course not. Many Americans were not ready for a transformational leader like Dr. King, let alone a transformational president.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee well represents the
They're Agin' Us view when he claims that if Dr. King were alive today, he would be "appalled" by the
Black Lives Matter movement's focus on the
skin color of the people who are disproportionately killed in
encounters with the police.
being patently false, Huckabee's argument betrays an indifference to
black suffering and an ignorance of the history the civil rights
movement, which from its infancy focused on bringing an end to violence
against African-Americans. Lest we forget, as so many people conveniently have, Dr. King's goal was to force the White House and
Congress to confront the fact that African-Americans were being killed
for "offenses" like trying to vote and for
equal protection under the law.
Huckabee's view, as well as the bile spouted by other Republicans, are pathetic in historic and contemporary contexts, but then they are merely standing at a figurative
schoolhouse door like George Wallace did in trying to protect the
crumbling facade of a political party that is being washed away by an
unstoppable demographic tide.
POLIIX UPDATE IS
WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE
2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS. © 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN
Post a Comment