Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Movement, Martin, and The March - 50 Years Ago

Dear John,
I'm crying, and for once it has nothing to do with you. (Believe, me, it doesn't - you were so sheltered growing up. You missed all of this.) This week is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and PBS is showing an oral history.
I remember it so well, and remember how badly I wanted to be there. (But that wasn't the time I tried to run away from home. That was to join the Freedom Riders when they came through Atlanta. Even at 7, I knew I could never get as far as Washington.) It was a bit like the day I stood in line for the first polio vaccine - I had a sense of the historical importance of the event, a feeling that this gathering would change the world forever.
Oh, unprintable words. There's a commercial on for Sandals Resort. They're showing a white couple walking on the beach with the word "freedom" in all capitals across the screen. This could be considered poor timing. Anyway.
The Civil Rights Movement was the centerpiece of my childhood. Nobody intended that. But my family ate dinner every night in front of the television watching Huntley and Brinkley do the national news. So I heard and saw it all. And I heard everybody's position on everything, and came to my own conclusions. I saw Martin's speech live. I heard George Wallace say, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." I'd seen footage of peaceful protesters attacked by police dogs and fire hoses. I knew what had happened at lunch counter protests and when the Freedom Riders filled those buses. I'd grown up singing Negro Spirituals and hearing The Blues. I'd lived all my life under segregation. When I was 4, I'd made a scene on a city bus because I wasn't allowed to sit in the back because I was white - everybody knew that the back was best. I'd never known anything but segregated buses, bathrooms, water fountains, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, housing, schools, churches, and everything else that mattered.
And because of the television, I was painfully uncomfortable with it. I felt guilty every time I saw one of those "Whites Only" signs - which was every time I left the house. Even when I was a small child, black people had to act subservient to me, and that was so painful that it made me cry. Maybe one reason I wanted to go to Washington was to show the world that I disagreed with my own people, to expiate my guilt and shame by standing publicly on the other side. I understood, as much as my 7-year-old mind could, that I could be killed there. But it seemed a worthwhile martyrdom - there was nothing better I could do with my life. Fifty years later, I feel the same way. Martin is no longer my only hero. I've gathered a few others along the way. But he was the first.
Now I'm crying so hard that the cat came to check on me, and you know what the only thing is that can make me cry like that. They just played The Speech. I grew up on those red hills of Georgia. And I wanted to hear freedom ring.
And I still do. My heart is still with this. I know young conservatives who think people like me are racist in reverse, that we feel guilt for what was done over a century ago. But they're wrong. Understandably so, but wrong. The world I grew up in looks so long ago and far away to them. But segregation was yesterday to people my age. The pain and struggle of those days isn't something you forget. A cause that you give so much to never becomes over, done with, no longer relevant. We're sensitive to the remaining injustice that people in their thirties can't even see.
So teach your children well. Their parents' hell will slowly go by. But we're not gone by yet. What happened that day, what my generation did, matters. And isn't complete. As long as the Klan marches every year in Durham, it isn't complete. Don't forget that the response to the March on Washington was the Birmingham church bombing where four little girls were killed. And after the Kennedy assassination - the first one - LBJ did the one decent act of his life. He pushed for, and signed, the Civil Rights Bill. It was the first one since Reconstruction.
These memories explain the emotional depth that Obama's inauguration had for people like me. We never dreamed we'd live to see a black president. My memories of the two days overlap and blur together sometimes. It's all part of the quilt that is my life, and the changes that I got to help bring about.
I've seen some history made, haven't I? And some of it has been very good. And you always wanted to understand that part of me. You didn't grow up seeing segregation, but not because of the exceptional enlightenment of the white people  there - it was because everybody was white. The one experience in your childhood that resonated with mine was your father's championing of the first black general to come to Wright Patterson Air Force Base. You were always so proud of that, and I first loved him for it. Thank you for being interested in my childhood experience, and for not having the usual northern assumptions of what Southerners are like. You were a bit shocked to visit my home and find a CSA sword on the wall over the fireplace. But believe me, it hadn't been used in over a century!
Love the man that made me love a Yankee!

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