Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, I thought back to 1968, when Barack Obama was seven years old. I was fourteen & starting the 9th grade the year that Martin Luther King & Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I remember that awful year as possibly the most frightening year of my short life so far then.
My father’s union, the IBEW, was on strike against the old monolithic “Ma Bell,” the New England Telephone & Telegraph branch of it, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. One of his friends helped my dad buy hot dogs & hamburgers at a wholesale price, so we could afford to eat. My dad finally got a summer job, which I helped him with, delivering telephone directories, of all things, which Ma Bell did not publish herself, but contracted out to a separate publisher. We rode around through one of the tonier suburbs in southeastern Massachusetts, leaving phone books on the doorsteps of people who lived in much nicer houses that we did, whose breadwinners were not on strike & using up their savings. I was due to start the 9th grade at a small Catholic high school, where the tuition was what now seems a remarkably small amount — around $250 a year, I think — but which it was becoming increasingly uncertain my parents would be able to afford. If I couldn’t go to school there, I was facing the prospect of attending the local public junior high school, which was, even then, even in suburban Weymouth, full of strife & drug use & teenaged girls who sometimes carried switchblades.
There is an old joke that if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there. I was there all right & I remember much of it all too vividly. Throughout the decade, boys not much older than me were getting killed in Viet Nam. The Civil Rights struggles played out on national television, depicting frightening images of marchers getting beaten & arrested, and worse, caught by Klansmen & getting lynched. A young, popular & beloved president was assassinated when I was nine years old. There was this war going on in Southeast Asia, but there was also a war going on in our own country, between the brave & the brazen who protested bigotry, racism & our involvement in Viet Nam & those who felt compelled by prejudice or occupation to uphold the status quo.
The Civil Rights movement was not just a series of frightening stories on the evening news. One of my dad’s friends was a man named Archie, who worked in the latter part of that decade for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. I remember very fondly he & my father having ice cream eating contests & peach pie eating contests in Archie & Dottie’s kitchen. Archie & his wife Dottie, who were phenomenal cooks, used to have a legendary luau in their backyard every summer, to which they invited at least 100 people. One or two of those years, I got to stay with Archie & Dottie & help them clean up their backyard & make huge crepe paper flowers to decorate for the luau. I was not allowed to walk around by myself in their neighborhood. It was unspoken but understood that they couldn’t let a twelve year old white girl roam around in their all-black neighborhood. But on the day of the luau, guests & friends of all colors rubbed elbows, sang songs & shared fried chicken, beans & rice, cornbread & homemade peach ice cream. I heard first-hand stories about civil rights marches & war protests & discussions about Martin & Malcolm X. When I saw stories on the news with film footage of southern police slamming civil rights marchers on the head with their saps & crosses being burned on front lawns, my fear was not abstract. I feared for my friends, for people like Archie & Dottie, and Ima Jean & Conrad, and I cried in bed & went to sleep to have nightmares.
To this day, when I recall Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, what I remember most acutely & still-tearfully are his prophetic words about scaling the mountaintop of racial justice & equality: “I may not get there with you.” Today, Barack Obama — who was a little boy when King was assassinated, who was raised by a white single mother, who was loved & nurtured by a white grandmother who admitted that sometimes she was afraid to pass a black man on the street — this intelligent, educated & articulate man of color is being sworn in as our 44th President, on the steps of a building that was built by African slaves.
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