Sunday, August 25, 2013

How I Got to the March

(The author as a nice young Christian boy, circa 1958 or so, Raleigh, NC)

I grew up in a neighborhood in west Raleigh, across from the NC State campus, where my father taught philosophy and religion. He'd build the house in the mid-30s, one of the first in the neighborhood, which had once been part of the old State Fair Grounds. Now and then we'd dig up a big chunk of concrete from that earlier era. Dad's first wife had died of pneumonia in 1940, and, still full of grief, he married my mother, a primary school teacher and friend of his younger sister, also a primary teacher, shortly thereafter. I was born in early 1943. My first memory is of my dad coming into the room and exclaiming, "The war's over." There was a bottom drawer in mom and dad's bedroom full of his first wife's things, under glass. She'd been a teacher and administrator at the high school I eventually went to, in the late '50s.

Adjacent to our neighborhood was a black neighborhood called "Oberlin." Oberlin Road was one of its borders, and across Oberlin Road was a black school. When I was attending Josephus Daniels Junior High, in the mid'50s, I'd either walk or ride the bus past that school. Josephus Daniels had been Secretary of the Navy, and was the founder of the Raleigh News and Observer, which was operated by the Daniels family until late into the '80s. Josephus was of the World War I era, and I think served under Wilson. He was a noted segregationist, but also a noted Democrat. When a Democrat won the Presidency, the News and Observer ran a red rooster the size of the front page under all the stories on the front page. I worked at the News and Observer for two years while I was in high school, on weekends, as a "copy boy" and general office flunky. I got to write some columns for Charlie Craven, who was the Damon Runyon of Raleigh and liked to write pieces on the pool hall characters he'd run across. Now and then Charlie would excerpt some chunk of Hemingway that he thought all of Raleigh should take note of. (For a substantial historical description of the history of the black town of Oberlin, which evolved on Raleigh's outskirts after the Civil War, see pgs. 10-13.)

Mom and dad were not segregationists and they were not activists. My mom was a dedicated church-goer, attending the Fairmont Methodist Church on Clark Avenue, which was about two blocks to the south of the start of Oberlin. Fairmont was of course all white. I went to Fairmont and was active in its youth programs. I was a Boy Scout, and then an Explorer scout, both affiliated with a Presbyterian church that occupied the rest of the block past our house. When I was in the first grade I was sick a lot with ear infections, and watched the church being built by black masons who could toss several bricks at a time up to men on the scaffold two stories high. My window was facing the construction. When I first saw the bricks flying past I thought they were birds, cardinals. You could build a brick church where an old wood one had been, maybe, but you couldn't kick over the whites only water fountain in front of the courthouse. We could drive down to the Seaboard Station on Peace Street and watch the trains come and go for family entertainment. We could not remark on the "colored only" waiting room, beyond perhaps a sad shake of the head. And if I had no idea, in the '50s, that anything could change, I did at least one dark night drink my first can of very cold Budweiser on the steps of West Raleigh Presbyterian, and no Bud has ever tasted better.

My dad didn't favor team sports and did not encourage me to play on teams. Like most boys, I wanted to play on teams, particularly in my case baseball. There were often pickup games around the neighborhood, at little parks. One summer day I got into one which was mostly being played by black kids from Oberlin. I vaguely recall being floored by the kid playing first base on a close play at first. I didn't really know these kids, or even their names, but you need a certain number of kids to make a team, and we all wanted to play. On another day at another park, this one really a kind of wooded median in another neighborhood adjacent to NC State and Oberlin, I played in a long game of touch football. Afterwards everyone was thirsty and we walked over to Hillsboro Street, which was a street of shops across from State. When we got to a small grocery store the black kids asked me to go in and buy sodas, because they weren't allowed in the store. This was my first, indelible, experience with what segregation really meant. It stayed with me, and still does. We were all thirsty, and we'd all just had a good time playing together. I might have been 12 or so at the time. I think I must have been still in grammar school.

While I was working at the News and Observer a Freedom Rider came through Raleigh. He was not "officially" a Freedom Rider at that point. He was riding the bus to Atlanta or somewhere like that, further south, to meet up with others. At that later point they were going to execute a Freedom Ride. I don't remember what the man's name was, or, for that matter, his race. He was articulate. The paper sent me over to the bus station, which was only a couple of blocks away, to talk to him. We sat in the segregated snack shop and had a cup of coffee together, and apparently offended several local people to the extent that someone from the paper showed up and suggested I leave. I didn't write a story using the interview; I wasn't that much of a reporter at that point. Probably that's a blessing. I was that boy in the picture.

(This is what Freedom Rides sometimes ended with.)

When I got to the University of North Carolina, in the fall of '61, the Red Rooster had flown on the N&O to mark John F. Kennedy's election. That same year the Dixie Classic basketball tournament, which was held at NC State and which I had attended every time, was cancelled due to a point shaving scandal which involved one of State's star players, Stan Nierowski, who might have otherwise had a pro career. A UNC player, Doug Moe, was also entangled, although he did end up with a pro career. UNC also ended up with a new coach in my freshman year, Dean Smith. That year, because he struggled his first couple of years, the students at UNC burned him in effigy.

After keeping my head down and my nose to the academic grindstone for my freshman year, I encounter in the fall of '62 an assortment of folks who had political and artistic views. I joined the Student Peace Union, which was headed by a grad student and Korean War vet named Pat Cusick. He subscribed to the little newspaper, The Catholic Worker. We passed out leaflets suggesting that the Bomb be Banned. When the civil rights campaign came to the south in the spring of 1963, the Student Peace Union decided that trying to get the shops and restaurants of Chapel Hill integrated was well within our mission, and we began picketing various segregated establishments up and down Franklin Street. At some point in the fall of '62 I'd been invited back to Fairmont Methodist, in Raleigh, to give a youth sermon (just to show you how engaged I was at the church business at that point in my life). I spoke on integrating Fairmont Church, since after all Oberlin was a natural part of Fairmont's constituency, being a stone's throw away. I received an extremely chilly reception, and this marked the end of my engagement with Fairmont.

As the civil rights campaign heated up, I spent more and more time with the Chapel Hill part of it. I also went over to Raleigh a few times to picket during the early summer. One night I picketed the State Theatre, a downtown movie theater, and walking back to Shaw University with the other picketers, mostly black people, an old school mate of mine tried to run us down by cutting into a gas station entrance just as we were about to cross into it. (I was sorry he didn't make it to my 50th Class Reunion a couple of years ago.) While we'd been picketing a few of my old high school teachers crossed the line to attend a movie. During one of these trips to my home town I set foot in a home in Oberlin for the very first time in my life, invited there by a co-picketer for a sandwich. Deeper into the summer the Chapel Hill movement decided to sit-in at the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce, an effective tactic which at least for the moment caused the city fathers to promise to jawbone the segregated shop owners into integrating their stores, if only we'd stop marching and sitting in for s while. The Movement agreed. Nothing happened.

Taking a trip up to New York City to see some friends who were staying in the East Village, I was asked to stop by Bayard Rustin's offices and talk to him about what he might expect from Chapel Hill's Movement re attendance at the March on Washington, of which he was a central planner. I recall a nice conversation, and I assured him we would have a contingent. And, indeed, buses were rented, and I was on one of them, and that's how I got to the March on Washington. My memory of the event is blurred by the fact that over the 50 years since I've seen much of it on television, over and over again. The most vivid memory I have is of our walk to the Lincoln Memorial, past and through a throng of thousands of folks who were all, or mostly all, on our side. There was a huge organized labor contingent at the March--something rare in North Carolina, which had a history of anti-union efforts at the government level. There was a general sense of solidarity and common purpose, and I felt I was actually living the words of one of the songs we'd sing as we marched through Chapel Hill with our picket signs:

We are soldiers in the Army
We've got to fight, although we've got to cry,
We've got to hold on to Freedom's banner,
We've got to hold it up until we die.

When we got back to Chapel Hill we tried to start up the movement. The Moratorium had killed the momentum, the restaurants and shops were still segregated, and the fall semester was about to start. I was physically exhausted, and had a serious case of pneumonia. My parents came and got me and I went home to Raleigh and spent a month in bed. In early November the Diems of Vietnam were assassinated. Kennedy was assassinated later that month of course. Oswald was assassinated three days later. One day in December I went downtown and was sitting on a park bench at the old State Capitol building amongst the Civil War soldier statuary when a Klan march in full regalia came around the corner and past me. I got back to Chapel Hill for the spring semester and reengaged in my studies. I graduated a semester "late," went straight into graduate school, and kept my draft deferment until I drew the number 310 a couple of years into Kant, Plato, and Wittgenstein. Then I struggled through my orals and caught a ride to San Francisco with a couple of buddies, escaping school life and a messed up marriage, and spent the winter of '69-'70 amongst the ragged remains of the Summer of Love-ists, where I began to get serious about playing fiddle, which is possibly an oxymoron. Dr. King had been assassinated by then of course, along with Robert Kennedy.

It is dizzying, really, all this mythologizing of Martin Luther King. Not that he doesn't "deserve" veneration. But the sad truth is, Dr. King didn't manage to succeed in his deepest goal, which was to heal the cancer of white privilege that infects America's central culture and warps nearly all that we try in our best moments to accomplish. As a nice little Christian white boy, I'd imagined that all it would take to really change things was to just show everyone what it felt like to be those kids who sent me into that store to buy drinks. While there have been significant strides made with regard to civil rights for black people in the United States, cultural racism remains, and has, indeed, captured one of our major political parties. Dr. King's message was in the largest sense that we'd all be much much better without racism--not just the oppressed who suffer its most obvious incarnation, but the oppressors as well, who never see themselves as they really are.

While Dr. King was giving the speech regarded by scholars as the "most significant" speech of the entire 20th Century, this is what white oppression was doing for its hosts:

Five years after the March on Washington, Richard Nixon was elected President. Nixon devised the "southern strategy," which invited racism into the Republican Party and eventually has remade the party into its own, more virulent than the benighted Dixicrats of 1948 and their laughable Strom Thurman candidate, because marketing geniuses have in the meantime realized that the best way to utilize racism is to soothe its victims--the perpetrators--into believing it doesn't exist at all, that racism died back in the '60s, perhaps even that Dr. King had to be sacrificed like some Jesus to rid the country of its scourge. The out and out racists mostly can't face the truth about themselves; the manipulators, some of whom quite well understand the levers they ply, can't bear to give up a chance at power, no matter what its cost. As George Wallace said upon losing an early election in Alabama as a moderate, "I'll never be out-niggered again." Lee Atwater said much the same thing twenty-five years later, on his death-bed. And of course 50 years after the Speech, the Supreme Court has demolished the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is often viewed as Dr. King's greatest achievement.

I continue to believe what I've believed for a long time. With the murder of Martin Luther King we lost our last best chance. Putting up a statue of him doesn't change that. On the other hand, for what it's worth, I'm proud that I was there, a soldier in the army, at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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