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#791 – Dick Bernard: Revisiting a Speech of President John F. Kennedy October 22, 1963

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Last night I was returning from a meeting and happened across a portion of a speech President John F. Kennedy had given on this date, 50 years ago, one month before his death.

The 24 minute speech, to the National Academy of Science, is archived on YouTube, accessible here.

This is worth a reflective listen. Any pre-listening editorial comments by me are superfluous.

Your comments are solicited.

#765 – Rosa, Joyce, Bill, Carol, Madeline, Jane, Jermitt, Jeff, John, Dick, Will, Peter: The March on Washington August 28, 1963, reflections by folks who weren’t there, but were impacted, then and now.

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Related Post: August 27, 2013
Highly recommended book (still in print): Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, published 1964, about the year 1963.

Rosa, who was raised in Orangeburg SC and is old enough to remember Aug 28, 1963, remembers...

Rosa, who was raised in Orangeburg SC and is old enough to remember Aug 28, 1963, remembers…

PRE-NOTE: This is a very long post (about 10 times the length of a typical post at this space), but (in my opinion) worth your time and your own reflection on your place in the conversation about race and other matters in todays United States of America. There is a lot of content.

For certain, take the time to read the comments of Will S, who grew up in north Minneapolis and is a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities; and Peter B, who grew up primarily in Philadelphia and for some years now has been a rural resident – living on a farm – in New Hampshire. Their comments are last on this very long page.

You can learn both by reading and reflecting on what they have to say. Neither were at the march, but do they ever have stories!

August 28, 1963, an event whose end result was unknown (or unknowable) even to the organizers. took place on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.

The news this week has focused on those who were actually there – I would guess the 1963 event directly involved only about one of every thousand Americans at the time. Still, it was an immensely successful event with great long term and positive ramifications for our country.

Today, President Obama apparently speaks from the spot of the 1963 speech. But, as seems always to be true, the real action of August 28, 1963, and after today, happens amongst the others – the remaining 999 of every 1000 – who are back home. People like us.

This blog is entirely comments by persons who weren’t on the Mall August 28, 1963, for one reason or another (you have to be at least 49 years old to have had even the possibility of being on that Mall Lawn, August 28, 1963.) What they have to say, in diverse ways, is very important.

They are simply friends, who I invited to make any comments they’d like to share, and a few ‘took the bait’, and here they are, the short ones first:

Joyce D, Aug 20, 2013: I was rather young at the time (12), but what I do remember is the demonization of the people involved in the march; my parents and their friends were liberals about many things, but not about race, and I remember their disgust at African Americans who “didn’t know their place”. I didn’t really find out what the civil rights movement was about until I went to college and met some African American students. I had tried arguing with my parents about race when I was a young teenager (I went to college at 16, so I was still quite young in high school) but I didn’t have the information to argue with them successfully; once I was in college, however, and getting to know African Americans, I was able to break away from my parents’ influence on race.

Here is a wonderful oral history from the Smithsonian:

From Bill K, Aug 20, 2013: Dick, Martin Luther King was a great, great American hero to me. In the mid-1940s I attended one of the two high schools in St. Paul where, thanks to some gerrymandering by the School Board, nearly all Black students attended. These schools were John Marshall High ( which I attended) and
Mechanic Arts High. Central High located on the western edge of the predominant housing area of most Black families was off limits to them.

It always amazed me when I heard the Black students in my classes sing the Star Spangled Banner with the words “the home of the free and the brave” or say the Pledge of Allegiance with words
“with Liberty and Justice for all” when so very much of this did not apply to their lives. What utter hypocrisy existed in those anthems then and for many years until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1950s and the 1960s. I have so much admiration for those who actively participated in their campaign. I do not think I would have been brave enough having a wife and 4 children at the time but many others both Black and White did. They too are heroes to me; however, Dr. King’s “I HAVE A DREAM” speech was the crowning high point of this movement for Liberty and Justice for all Americans!! To this day I still get misty eyed when I hear a replay of his speech.

Joyce D, Aug 24, 2013: In response to Bill Klein’s comments regarding recitation of the pledge, my friends and I recited the pledge in high school (it was required) but we when it came to the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all”, we substituted, “with liberty and justice for some”. Only we knew we had changed the words, but it was important to us.

from Carol T, Aug 25, 2013: To my eternal embarrassment, I was paying no attention. I had just married and I’m afraid was centered on myself and my life. I can relate to the person who said their prejudice was against Indians. I graduated from Brainerd [MN], but of course there were not Indians in my school as they were all on the “rez.” Not a Black person in sight there, either – and basically none in St. Cloud where I moved. They lived in somebody elses world.

I was working at the St. Cloud VA Hospital in Personnel. I got my introduction to how institutional prejudice worked when it was necessary to hire PT or OT personnel. The law said that we had to hire from the top seven available candidates (highest test scores) on the lists provided. The best candidates seemed to always be from the South. My boss would comb through the resumes for evidence of race, like attendance at a Black university. Those were out. If a phone call to them was not answered, then it was documented that they were unavailable and he’d slide on down the list. Once he was in an absolute quandary as everyone on the list appeared to be Black, so he’d have to hire one of “them.” The new OT (Mr. White) was a wonderful gentleman, and attended our church with his family.

from Madeline S, Aug 25, 2013: I cannot recall specifically what I was doing that summer, probably working, knowing I would return to a second year at the Fergus Falls Junior College. My parents watched the news, so, living at home, perhaps I saw the march and the speech. West central Minnesota, “at that time,” had little mention of race. There was one black family in Fergus when I was in high school and I recall asking my parents how they would feel if I dated their son. To their credit, it would give them no concern if I did. He was a good kid and involved like all others in high school activities. At the Junior College we had two black professors, one a PhD in Psychology. [Following] is an email from a classmate shows how things were regarding racism in that area earlier in the century.

from Jane (friend of Madeline): Here’s an article Negroes MN 1915002 from way back in time, 1915 that was published in the Battle Lake [MN]Review.

Mary found this in many of her sister Noel’s oldies but goodies pile of collectable papers. It took me a while to enlarge the print to make it legible.

Hope you can appreciate how most people have become a more united and embracing society to all human beings. When someone says that we should go back to how things were in the past, this is a horrific example how people treated others that were not like them.

from Jermitt K, Aug 26, 2013: Dick: Thanks for your request on memories regarding the great march on Washington. I remember watching and listening to the presentations while on campus at the University of South Dakota. I was working toward my Master’s Degree in Botany. I was very interested in Dr. Martin Luther King’s presentation. I had met Dr. Martin Luther King three years earlier at a church conference in Florida. So I followed most of his activities from that time forward. His “I Have a Dream” speech had a very deep and emotional impact on me. While I was already teaching economically depressed children at the time, I made a commitment to continue working with children of all races who were struggling because of burdens of poverty, either directly or indirectly. I hope that I have been able to fulfill this commitment.

from Jeff P, Aug 26, 2013: I was 9 years old. I vaguely remember that, the big thing in my memory [President Kennedy Assassination] would come in November. I was in 3rd grade I think at St Sebastian school, we got let off for the day… sad days for those nuns.

from John B, Aug 28, 2013:You asked your blog readers about their recollections of the MLK I have a dream speech:

I am pretty sure I didn’t see the original MLK speech in August, 1963. I was beginning my first year at Saint Olaf College. I had likely just arrived on campus and nobody had TV sets. If I hadn’t been moved by the speech when I later heard about it, I have since, many times. It was a little hard to get whipped up about a speech, as I had already been whipped up in years earlier at a much more personal level.

All my heroes in my high school days were jazz musicians, especially Miles Davis and J.J.Johnson and Charlie Mingus, just some of my ideals I had pictures of hanging from the walls of my bedroom, along side of white musicians Bob Brookmeyer and Gerry Mulligan. I knew of the racial struggles. I tended to support a more radical expression of racial justice like advocated by SNCC and later, Malcom X and the Black Panthers. In my last year in high school I was in a speech activity called “play reading” where I played the roll of Walter Younger in Loarraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun. A few years later the play was made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. I got into the role. My teacher, Barbara Feldman, helped me do this through some memorable conversations. She also gave me a copy of an LP record of by Oscar Brown Jr., named Sin and Soul, which poetically told the tale of being a Negro in America pre MLK. Although predisposed to fight for the underdog, I have since realized, I will always root for the underdog. This trait, as you know me Dick, is part of who I am. It was like I was hard wired to be a union organizer.

I remember where I was and how I felt when MLK was murdered in 1968 or 1969. I can’t remember which year, but I was at the Plaza Bar in Madison after a rehearsal of the Madison Municipal Band. It was devastating news, another kick in the face in the 1960s. Yes, progress has been made. There is so much left to do.

from Dick Bernard, Aug 20, 2103: August 28, 1963, best as I can piece together, I was in an Army Division practicing war in the outback of South Carolina. We arrived at the Air Force Base in Greenville SC, and perhaps a couple of weeks later departed from Ft. Gordon near Augusta GA.

In between, we were playing war. I was a company clerk in an infantry company, nearing the end of my two years.

Maybe some of us knew it at the time, but what we were about was practicing for the Vietnam War, then just a gleam in somebody’s eye.

So, I have no recollections of any March on Washington D.C.

But I do have recollections of race in that time.

I was a North Dakotan, and in my youth “negroes” were essentially unknown to me, though by then the Air Force bases at Minot and Grand Forks had come into being. So far as I know, the Army was fully integrated in my time in the service (1962-63).

In North Dakota, the race of choice for us to discriminate against was the Indians (I am using the terms of the time) who were in reservations, and certainly not “equal” in any sense of the word. Years later, I was asked to talk about the business of race at my Church in St. Paul. I still have the notes from MLK Day, Jan 18, 1995: Dick B Jan 18, 1995 Race001 . Just a white guy talking about race to a congregation with many African-Americans….

There are some recollections from South Carolina in the summer of 1963.
1. Most dramatic personal memory was in Saluda SC where, for some reason, we had some liberty time – a few hours, perhaps – in a town. I recall a laundromat, there, with a “colored” entrance which one could reach only by going in an outside door, in what we’d call the basement.
2. In the boondocks we came across a long deserted plantation house, looked sort of like the antebellum pictures you see, but in advanced state of deterioration.
3. Somewhere along the way, somebody came across an Atlanta Constitution newspaper. I remembered specifically an advertisement in that paper placed by someone named Lester Maddox for the PickRick Restaurant in Atlanta. This was an interesting ad: a full column, advertising Fried Chicken and spewing what we would now call racist commentary. Lester Maddox, of course, later became Governor of Georgia. Years later I looked up the PickRick ads in old Atlanta Constitutions. They ran once a week, always the same. Here’s the copy for the ad for August 31, 1963, three days after DC: Atlanta Ad 8-31-63001. The copy would have been submitted before the march, but the content is nonetheless revealing, as the photo of part of the ad shows, below:

(click to enlarge)

From the PickRick ad in the Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1963.

From the PickRick ad in the Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1963.

4. Some lucky ducky’s in our battalion came across a country high school and had an opportunity to take a shower, but only the white soldiers were welcome to this luxury; the same report was given later by some GIs who had a chance to eat in a restaurant, but their black friends were not welcome.

But, I remember nothing about August 28, 1963, not until well after Army Days.

from Carol, in response to Dick (above), Aug 28: I have a delightful little story which you may enjoy- given your North Dakota roots. My grandpa (who, unfortunately, died before I could know him) homesteaded in the boonies of ND. My aunts tell the story (early 1900s) of the time he hired a Black man to work on their farm. Neighbors got together and helped each other out at “threshing time,” but sometimes they needed more help. Grandpa went in to their little town to meet the train, as migrant workers often were on it. He brought home a Black guy – who the neighbors thought was good enough to work alongside them, but they complained to grandpa that they didn’t want to sit down at the dinner table with him. Grandpa told them, “Oh, you don’t have to, you can take your plate and eat in the kitchen, or on the porch…” After that they shared the table. My aunts remembered him playing with them during “down time” instead of trying to socialize with the white neighbors. One remembered asking him why his hands were so black but the palms were whiter, and he said he guessed he hadn’t washed them well enough. Love the story, and love my grandpa for it.

from Will S, Aug 25, 2013: If Dr. King were alive today, I think he would create not a memorial march to the site of the 1963 event but a march moving from the White House to the Capitol to the Pentagon to the offices of the CIA, FBI, NSA and other spook organizations, the Treasury Department, K Street where the PR people and lobbysists are officed and perhaps most important, the Supreme Court.

People would be armed with draft bills to achieve what they want.

They would sending back reports to hometown media with their high-tech phones in real time on real events.

They would focus on the present and the future and try to build on the past.

That’s what I think we should be doing and if we couldn’t go to D.C. for the memorial event, we can always visit the local offices of our two U.S. senators and House representative and tell them in person what we think and what we want.

Sitting home (as I probably do more than the rest of you) and typing away may be productive if LTEs get published and writing your Congresspeople on their websites always is recommended (by me) but there is nothing like a face to face meeting if it can be arranged.

The memorial march on Washington should not be a one-day event that quickly fades into history. It should be a revitalization of the cause of civil rights and the start of something on-going.

More from Will S, Aug 26, 2013: There are varying accounts of who the first Freedom Riders were. I knew several classmates at the U of M who went to Tennessee and Mississippi in the late 1950s to register voters. They were hassled by the police but not arrested. I could not go because I was just beginning a job in the newsroom of KSTP. They called in reports to us everyday, but most of the other media just were not interested.

Not long after, word was received that one of the cities that the Freedom Riders visited was going to retaliate.

They had gathered a group of unemployed black people, told them jobs and homes were waiting for them in Minnesota and sent them on a chartered bus to a city in southwestern Minnesota, forget which one. The group became known as the Reverse Freedom Riders.

I called the mayor of this town and he had no idea this was happening, understood what was being done, was appalled at how the blacks were lied to and said, “Don’t worry, we will find them places to live, we will welcome them and try to find them jobs.”

This became a national news story. I reported it on NBC radio and we sent a TV crew to film it for Huntley-Brinkley NBC Evening News although I was not part of that.
Eventually, the blacks returned to the South because they could not stand Minnesota winters.

The mayor said they not only were the first black residents of that town but the first blacks most residents ever had met. Churches there played a big role in taking them in.
Another time, a friend of mine and I went to the Minneapolis Auditorium to hear George Wallace speak. Some of the pickets became disruptive and someone called the police. They sprayed some kind of crowd dispersal gas on the audience and I helped a woman and her kids out of the building.

When someone sued the police department, I volunteered to testify and did.

Can’t remember the disposition of the case.

In my career in the news business, among the civil rights activists I met were Martin Luther King III who came here to speak often; Julian Bond and Andrew Young.

More Will S, same day. When I worked in PR at 3M, I was a resource person to the company’s African-American Arts Society. Sometime in the 1990s, when the actor James Earl Jones came to the Guthrie Theater, then located near Loring Park, Minneapolis, to act in a play about apartheid in South Africa, I got 3M to pay for tickets and arranged through the Guthrie PR person for our group to meet Mr. Jones after the performance.

Meet him? He kept the bar open until 3 a.m. and we discussed many subjects of concern to black men and women.
3M had trouble attracting and keeping black employees. They had good jobs but were put off by the relatively few number blacks then living here compared to where they had grown up and-or come from.

They wanted to socialize with other blacks, meet new people, maybe find marriage partners. Many left in despair. But one told me she had done the most daring thing of her life: began dating a white man (not me) and they were totally in love. Don’t know how that worked out.

Once in the 1990s, I was attending a play at black-oriented Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. To my surprise, I found myself sitting directly behind the renowned black playwright August Wilson who came here from Pittsburgh.

At that time, I was editor of the newsletter of the Twin Cities Jazz Society. I knew Wilson was a big jazz fan and we did an interview during intermission. The subject: is jazz strictIy a music by and for blacks or is there room for whites and others? “Of course there’s room for others!” he yelled at me and everyone looked at us. We both laughed. I scooped the corporate media which then and now was no big accomplishment.

In 2002 I was in New York for a jazz convention. In the lobby, people had gathered around Jesse Jackson. He held court on a variety of problems and I found him well versed on jazz, too.

Still more, Will S, Aug 26: When I worked at Honeywell 1965-1974, I met an engineer who was a German Jew who barely had escaped Hitler. When riots and city burnings were flaring up all over the nation including a small one on Plymouth Avenue North, Minneapolis, where I was raised and where many of Minneapolis’ blacks lived, Hans Peter Meyerhoff, now in retirement with his Belgian Jewish wife, Rose, in Fridley, decided to try to do something to help blacks economically.

He prepared on a manual typewriter and replicated by carbon paper copies of a list of black business operators in North Minneapolis, called it “Buy Black,” distributed copies to his friends and associates and urged them to patronize these businesses. It grew slowly but steadily. South Minneapolis was added, then St. Paul, then others around the state.

I wrote a story about “Buy Black” for the employee newspaper and when I told a friend of mine at the local AP office about “Buy Black,” he put it on the national AP newswire and over the years, “Buy Black” took on a life of its own with a small staff and still operates.

At the same time, the Urban Coalition and other Twin Cities business people helped create a local chapter of the National Minority Business Campaign [NMBC], designed to help larger black-owned companies do business with majority firms.

By this time, I had moved to 3M and helped the director of purchasing write a guidebook designed to help minority business people deal with majority firms.
Word of this reached the White House and when I attended the national convention of NMBC in DC, I was invited to speak.

Just before we entered the East Room at the White House, Pres. Carter came down the steps connecting the family residence to the main floor. He was holding a copy of our 3M guidebook. When we shook hands, I told him I had written it. He said he wanted me to meet his Secretary of Commerce whose name I forget. She and I spent an entire day together discussing what the Carter Administration could do to improve interaction between government, the private sector and the black business community. She wrote the book on that.

I should have taken with me when I retired from 3M all of the photos, documents, awards etc. that 3M received but I l left them in a file cabinet and when I asked someone to search for them, they were gone.

“Buy Black” held a reunion recently but I could not get the media interested. They did cover the annual luncheon of the local chapter of NMBC, probably because it is closer to corporate culture than small business. Big mistake to ignore small, minority business.

Still more Will S Aug 26: Although there are many black men and women I would like to meet or hear speak or read their books (which I try to do) the foremost one is Angela Yvonne Davis.

A mainstay of The Black Panthers in the 1950s and ’60, companion and ideologue of murdered Panther George Jackson, her 10-year-old book The Angela Y. Davis Reader is light years ahead of most others in its ideology and ideas for the future.

You’ll probably have to find it on Amazon or some such but it is well worth the search as is the sometimes-difficult read when it seems less a book and more like a PhD thesis full of arcane terminology and references, but then, why should that make any difference?

Davis now teaches at the University of California/Santa Cruz, does few media gigs but seems to be alive and well and, I hope, still writing and someday will emerge from semi-seclusion to become a political leader again for all of us. ws

and still more from Will, Aug 26: thenation.com Sept. 2/9 largely devoted to the 50th anniversary of The March.

I don’t know about where you-all grew up but at Minneapolis North in the 1950s, now crime-ridden, relations among almost everyone were peaceful.

We grew up integrated before the term ever was invented.

There was a tiny bit of socializing between a few of us white boys and a few black girls. My parents didn’t care but the girl I was attracted to said if her father knew she was dating a white boy, he would kill me and she was not kidding.

She won a scholarship to what became known as a Historical Black College in Atlanta and I never saw her again.

On some hot summer nights, weather like this, we would meet at Theodore Wirth Lake where the Aqua Follies were held including recently-deceased Olympic swimmer Esther Williams.

A few of us swam nude and a very few of us became intimate. It became the best kept secret in the school. But no white girls participated; they were scared to death of sex and even more scared of black boys.

The most astounding event was in about 1950 when a white Jewish man (older brother of a friend of mine) eloped with a black woman to LA.

A strange thing happened at my bar mitzvah June 25, 1949 at Mikro Kodesh synagogue, 1000 Oliver Av. N.

In the middle of my recitation, the doors to the synagogue opened and in walked a half dozen very tall black men wearing mourning coats and that type of formal dress.

The rabbi stopped the service and went back to find out who they were. Turned out their letter never had arrived announcing that they were Ethiopian Jews on a tour of the U.S.

Many in the congregation were very prejudiced against blacks who were beginning to move into North Minneapolis but the rabbi seated them and they joined us for the traditional Jewish feast after the bar mitzvah.

They knew nothing about Yiddish but the rabbi said they spoke a dialect of Hebrew that probably dated back to Moses’ time!

Their next stop was Seattle so we called ahead to a synagogue there to receive them, put them on the Empire Builder and off they went.

I can see them as if it were yesterday.

Tall and lean, heavily bearded, all wearing the same clothing including top hats instead of yamakas which was all right with us!

Prejudice of many of the congregation against blacks led me first to leave the congregation and eventually, Judaism. Am now a devout agnostic.

and more yet from Will, Aug. 27, 2013: If you are interested in working for causes that come generally under the heading of civil rights, find the NAACP or Urban League chapter in your area and find out what their needs are.

It has been my experience that they welcome new members of any race and there is no doubt in my mind that the readers of Bernard’s Blog could help these organizations immensely.

I once attended an Urban League national convention and an NAACP national convention as a representative of 3M and met some the most dedicated people I ever was to meet.

We have some people like that here and they will be in D.C. for the March, but they have been marching all of their lives.

and still more from Will, Aug 28: After Dr. King was assassinated, a friend of mine at 3M, Ken Coleman of St. Paul, of African American descent, a company photographer, put together a memorial to Dr. King which he offered to his widow, Coretta Clark King, for use at the King Center in Atlanta. The company gave free rein to Ken to do his project and he became close to the entire King family.

A few years later, Ken left 3M to take a job in California and except for a few phone calls and one visit back to St. Paul, we have been out of touch but I can imagine, wherever he is, what he is thinking and feeling on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and what he did help memorialize Dr. King.

If you ver go to Atlanta, you must visit the King memorial.

From Peter B., Aug 25 & 26, 2013:
Dick,

I missed that march, but made a lot of others; and I was deeply engaged with the Civil Rights Movement in those times. The Civil Rights struggle is far from over, and by many measures things have gotten far worse.

The marches on Washington were not media events. They were hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, who had tried every other thing they could come up with to change a terrible and quite deadly situation. Back then Washington was where we thought we could assemble for “redress of grievances.” Congresspeople still read their own mail. You could walk into the White House. Nobody knew what a “Jersey Barrier” was.

Most of the media coverage – newspapers and radio and black-and-white television – succeeded in watering down the real messages and minimizing the actual numbers of real people involved, and playing up the weirdos. Which in those times was anybody wearing a beard.

The coverage of Manning and Snowden and Assange today is much more skillfully bent. Old techniques still work reliably, and they were refined, such as “shoot the messenger” and “divide and conquer.” Who has seen any story about the actual content of the thousands of documents uncovered by these brave, pitiful human beings? Only those who are able to go find out themselves; and now, the NSA has your number.

We live in an Empire beset by “Terrorism.” Serious People discuss “The Terrorist Threat.” There is no possibility of functioning Democracy, none, it’s been gone for years, such as it ever was. Marches merely let off some of the pressure. A few big names get seen again. People go home tired, hoping they accomplished something. I don’t think any of the people born since the original March really understand what they are up against. Hell, we didn’t know back then what Hoover was up to (and now his kind of scheming has been legalized). King really went through some horrors at the hands of the State, and the miracle and mystery of that man is that he kept it up all the way to the bloody end.

King knew what we were up against. He had been convincingly warned. For the rest of us the message is clear: if you are effective at resisting Power, Power will fear you. And now, they have drones, and all your emails, and all your friends’ emails.

Weren’t we quaint, all those years ago, with our beards and our signs and our sit-ins? Our fire-hoses and police dogs? I got a copy of my personal FBI file. I was eighteen years old, and the Feds interrogated upstanding members of my community about me.

It is a scary thing.

Love

Peter

(Continued, next day)

Expanding a little on a previous observation:

Consider what comes across the Feed – most television content – these days, and how we – and when I say “we” I mean people of every race and kind – how we used to get our impressions about groups of human beings of which we were not members.

One source of info on this for me is my first marriage. She was about as “black” as possible, from the ghetto that was Philadelphia, PA. We were in a band that played every dive in the city. We were very young to get married. We moved into the heart of the worst possible neighborhood in North Philly, and my education began in earnest. For readers who don’t know me, I’m “white.”

What did I know about the life of an “inner-city” dweller? In my suburban high school the racism was comfortably entrenched. “They” lived down on Union Street. Today it is one of the better neighborhoods, but then it was the only street in town that “Negroes” would be shown by realestate agents. In elementary school the rhyme had been recently edited to go: “Eeny meeny miney moe / Catch a Tiger by the toe…” and I had seen one fight narrowly averted by a smiling-but-serious “Negro” child when the older version was pronounced pointedly in his direction. “Better watch what you say…” Most “White” kids I knew were quietly terrified of being caught alone and outnumbered by “Negroes” of any age or professional status. What nightmares did “Negro” kids suffer from? I just woke up from one last night, to my astonishment, about running out of gas in the ghetto, and suddently being surrounded by hostile teenagers who proposed to set me on fire.

These things get embedded deep and permanently in the brain. I have known people for whom I was the first “White” they had ever seen (they thought I was a ghost, and kept pinching my skin in fascination); and as a toddler, I remarked to a visitor from India: “Sharda, your face is dirty.” She replied, smiling, “Oh, Peter, you’re naughty!” So perhaps racism should be distinguished as, on one hand, the natural response to the sight of a person with obvious physical differences; and on the other, an insideous economic system based on this reaction.

This being a college town, there were professors and students from Africa, or the deep south, or Philly; to most of us kids they were all just “Negroes.” But I was brought up to believe racial references were impolite, and no basis for choosing our friends or restaurants or any other relationships, and we had also lived in Nigeria for a year when I turned sixteen, the year President Kennedy was assassinated. I had met Stokely Carmichael (look him up!) who told me in no uncertain terms exactly what kind of racist I was. He was a great teacher, and I took it to heart. I recognized my racist self right then, and it is probably the best lesson I ever learned.

And there was of course my first love, music. I followed it into Philly in the late sixties. Yet even with all this, I gues one could say inoculation, against the culural mindset of my “White” middle-class suburban background, I was totally unprepared for life in the ghetto, in America.

I have surprisingly little to say on this point: in the “inner-city” with the largest, deadliest gang, the Zulu Nation, with forty thousand members, where no non-“Negro” people existed for ten miles in any direction except pawn-shop and delicatessen owners, and very rarely, cops; where my soon-to-be brother-in-law was already shot dead on his front lawn, and my mother-in-law-to-be worked a second job downtown in a porn movie thearter selling tickets; I was always treated with the utmost kindness, respect and concern for my comfort. This had been true in Nigeria when I walked in the bush for days armed with a water gourd, a blanket and a stick, and the same genuine, authentic human compassion was extended to me everywhere I went in the most bombed-out slums in America.

Still I was constantly on my guard, because “White” kids in America were taught, by every subtle, invisible sign and signal, that “Negroes” were dangerous, unpredictable and hostile. This belief ran so deep in the culture as to be invisible, just a background assumption that would only appear in stories about running out of gas in the “wrong neighborhood,” or in the dirty stories young boys told in locker-rooms and behind the bleachers, in which “Negroes” all had straight razors and deadly animal instincts.

Now. What do kids know about “African-Americans” today? They have, mind you, the Feed now. The thing that comes into every suburban home, spewing a ceaseless torrent of multi-media experiences in which “African-Americans” are usually the enemy, the perpetrator, or just the helpless dysfunctional victim of “society’s ills.” Cosby? Are you kidding? Oprah? Again, are you kidding? The occasional doctor or church-lady or gospel singer only makes the contrast sharper in the flood of the “gangsta” and sports mythology industries. And no mistake, industries they are. In America today, racism is big, big business.

The only “White” kids you might see in a ghetto now are on posters and TV ads promoting lighter skin and products that promise lighter skin and straighter hair. And this is still the scale on which beauty is ranked. Any “White” kid contemplating, say, pursuing a career in jazz or rap by working up through the ranks from the street would be considered suicidal. Schools are more segregated, if possible, than ever before in history, and so are the commercial jails, of course.

Oh sure, there are lots of up-and-coming “African-American” (why are there no “Anglo-Americans?”) in the schools and community colleges, and quotas of same at the Ivy League schools (a bone of contention still). They are headed for the professions, and there are still some middle-class neighborhoods waiting for them, if the Banksters haven’t bought up all the foreclosed property yet. But in America, now, in 2013, Aparteid is on the rise, and accelerating.

Fifty years later, the system of racial prejudice is still with us, as institutional and complicated as ever, and now it is, like perpetual war, a cornerstone of “the Economy.” Progress, of a kind, but to my mind, retrograde, and terminal if we don’t wake up to it.

Love

Peter

#764 – Dick Bernard: “I have a dream”, 50 years later

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
Published in 1964, and still in print, Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr is an outstanding first-person view of the year 1963.

Published in 1964, and still in print, Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr is an outstanding first-person view of the year 1963.

Tomorrow is the actual anniversary of the “March on Washington” August 28, 1963 – it was a Wednesday then, too.

It occurred to me that almost all attention is paid to that day itself, in Washington, and that of the then-population of the United States perhaps one in 1,000 people were there.

The heavy lifting occurred before and after August 28, 1963. The event itself was extraordinary, but, like Rosa Parks sit-in on the bus in Alabama, only one part of a much larger story.

I decided to ask my own list to consider sharing some of their own memories related to August 28, 1963: “YOUR THOUGHTS? August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Whether you were there or not, you may have some thoughts to share on how you felt at that time in history, and how that event has impacted on you and people you know.

Eight people weighed in, including Will Shapira and Peter Barus with very lengthy and interesting perceptions.

The entire file, now approaching 6000 words (a normal blog is 600-700 words, and this one is about 170 word at this point) was published August 28. You can read it here.

I invite you to at least scroll through, and to apply the comments to your own perceptions and memories and application to the future. The long ones – Will and Peter’s – are the last portions of the post.

Personally:

1) None of us are post-racial, in my opinion, and we probably will never be post-racial. It is part of our very fabric. Saturday we took Cathy’s friend Alyson to see “The Butler”, the movie about the White House Butler for a long succession of Presidents. Alyson came to the U.S. from Antigua in 1982 and is African and white descent, dark-skinned with the unique island accent. We asked her for her impressions afterwards. I don’t think she could relate to the racial aspects. In her island Republic, part of the British empire still, the top government officials are ordinarily black. It is not considered a big deal. She is of slave ancestry, certainly, but the white ancestry is prominent as well. Apparently, at least from her perspective, the American experience is rather odd.

2) There is lamenting about how far there is still to go to achieve the dream articulated August 28, 1963. I tend to prefer looking at how it was, versus how it is, now. In 1963, there was no question that ours was a society rife with racial tensions…the white attitudes prevailed. Fifty years later, it is the whites who remember the ‘good old days’ pre-1963 who are on the defensive. There has been a huge change.

3) But…we are a people who tend to do change, then take it for granted, with the inevitable repeating of history. So, it is not enough to rest on laurels, rather necessary to stay in action, and in conversation about the real issues which remain.

4) Which leads back to the comment that perhaps one in 1,000 Americans was in Washington on the Mall August 28, 1963.

The 999 back home, then, and still, are the ones who will in the long run make the difference, by their individual and small group actions where they live. There is no magic bullet. I understand that President Obama – a clear beneficiary of August 28, 1963, will be speaking at the Mall tomorrow.

He is just one person.

We must be, as Gandhi said so powerfully, the change we wish to see in the world.

It’s on all of our shoulders.

That’s 564 words, about 10% of tomorrows post. I hope you drop in on it, maybe look back once or twice to read it through in bits and pieces.

#426 – Dick Bernard: Labor Day 2011 and “The Help”

Monday, September 5th, 2011

We went to the film, The Help, Sunday afternoon. It was time very well spent.

There are many reviews: Go to IMDB for many of them and other information about The Help. If you haven’t seen the film, consider taking it in, either in the theater, or by other means.

The Help is about Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, and about relationships, such as they were between Negro domestics and the families they worked for.

Sitting behind us in the Grandview Theater in St. Paul were two women who commented back and forth from time to time.

During the film, one of them said to the other, “that’s the way it was“. She apparently was from 1963 Mississippi, or perhaps even Jackson, the setting for the film. They sat there through the film credits at the end so I saw them as we exited: two older white women, my age.

1963 was a watershed year in the Civil Rights movement, captured best by Martin Luther King Jr in his book “Why We Can’t Wait“, published in early 1964, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This book is an excellent companion for the movie. It is a book I go back to frequently.

Our guest for the movie was Cathy’s long-time friend, “Annette”, who I wrote about in December, 2009.

Back then, 21 months ago, she’d just been fired from her job in a bank for what turned out to be no reason other than the new manager wanted somebody else.

There was no need for a justifiable reason, as those domestics so well knew in 1963.

Annette is Black, single, in her 50s, probably 30-years or more an American citizen, raised in one of those tiny Caribbean resort islands.

Her family was not a family of domestics, but nonetheless knew their place and their roles back home. She is a neat person.

She said she enjoyed the movie, but she was uncharacteristically quiet.

I didn’t know till afterward that she’s unemployed again.

After over a year of unemployment which included knee replacement surgery, she finally found a job at the Twin Cities International Airport. It was a long bus ride, then eight hours on her feet in one of those food concessions in a concourse. It was scarcely above minimum wage. She had hoped to make 12 weeks, but she finally quit the job after only 10 weeks, last Friday. Her legs just couldn’t tolerate the punishment of standing all day.

So, she spends Labor Day joining the ranks of the unemployed again.

Annette won’t be out on any picket lines today or ever. It’s not her nature, and besides she can’t physically do it. She may end up going back to the island where she at least has family, she said.

“Good riddance”, some might say.

Meanwhile, our country lurches into a permanent election season, candidates braying about this or that as they seek office in 2012.

Ours, like increasing numbers of American families, has long-term unemployed among our own members.

Unless there is serious action, there will doubtless be more as the months go on.

Finally, in “The Help”, the domestic workers get mad as hell, unite, and their cultured and genteel overseers get their due.

But The Help is only a movie about a novel.

Rather than expecting today’s unemployed to advocate for themselves, or go out and get a job that doesn’t exist, we need to do the heavy lifting, politically.

In the long run, those without means will exact their revenge: our economy will get weaker and weaker because there is less and less money to spend. None of us will escape.

We don’t need this to happen. It’s in our court.

END NOTE: The film caused me to seek out an old Reader’s Digest article I knew I had saved, written by Mary Hatwood Futrell, daughter of a “domestic”, and then President of the over 2 million member National Education Association. The article is here: FutrellRdrsDigJul1989001

POSTNOTES:
If nothing else, this film should encourage reflection and discussion.
1. My personal knowledge of “Negroes” did not begin until Army days in 1962-63. I grew up in North Dakota before the military bases, and the race-of-choice was “Indians” who were restricted to Reservations and hardly respected. By chance, at the time of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington D.C., I was in an Army division on maneuvers in rural South Carolina. It was there, for the first time, that I saw first hand the separate and unequal division of the races in the south. It was an eye-opening experience to say the very least.
2. The film has also caused me to reflect on growing up in a public school teachers family in the rural midwest in 1940s and 1950s. Succinctly, in those ‘good old days’, teachers were treated with scarce more public respect than the domestics in the film. The significant difference, of course, was that racial animus wasn’t part of the equation. Public School teachers, before collective bargaining, were Public Servants (caps intended) – officially and publicly respected, but dismissed at will. Their travails were very small compared with the plight of the Indians and Negroes, but they were travails nonetheless.