It is easy to forget what America was like before the Civil Rights Movement changed how African-Americans are treated in the US. I’ve touched on this subject in my articles about UC Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement. Prejudice was not a problem relegated to the South.
Today, in honor of Martin Luther King, I would like to visit the South of 1968, however. I was serving as a recruiter for the Peace Corps at that time, working through out the Southern United States. It was the year Martin Luther King was shot.
The issue of skin color had faded away when I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa from 1965-67. My travels through the South as a recruiter brought me face to face again with the reality and tragedy of prejudice.
Supposedly, I was recruiting in the ‘New South,’ a South that had made it beyond the ugliest parts of discrimination. But one didn’t have to dig deep to find old scars or even open wounds.
A few years earlier, George Wallace was announcing his schools would not be integrated, Lester Maddox was waving his pick ax handle, students from Berkeley were participating in the Freedom Rides and young people were being murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi for registering black voters.
One of our black recruiters had grown up in Alabama and described the experience. I was still mastering ‘Southernese’ so her statement lost a little in the translation but I report it as I heard it.
“When I was growing up,” she had reported, “I always had to step off the sidewalk and into the gutter whenever the Polish came walking along.”
“Wow,” I had replied, trying to comprehend what it would be like to have to debase yourself in such a way and at the same time wondering about the problem with the Polish that I had never heard about before.
“I never knew that there was a problem in the South with the Polish,” I observed.
“Polish,” she had replied in an irritated voice, “P, O, L, I, C, E.” Read my lips.
Properly chastised my mind made the leap. I thought back to Berkeley and remembered my feelings about police on campus. I wondered what it would be like to grow up fearing the very people who were supposed to protect you. How long it would take for those feelings to leave you… if they ever could? How could such experiences do anything other than teach you hatred?
Not long after that my wife, Jo Ann, and I were recruiting at the University of North Texas in Denton along with a black recruiter. The three of us had gone out for breakfast at a local restaurant.
I had noticed that people became quiet when we walked in. Gradually conversations resumed. I really didn’t think much about it. A family with young children was in the booth next to us. Suddenly a little four-year-old head poked up and was staring over the seat at us, all eyes.
“Mama, there is a nigger sitting with those people,” she had announced to her mother and everyone else in the restaurant in a loud, clear voice. From the ‘mouth of an innocent babe’ the prejudice of generations was repeated.
Jo Ann and I were also to learn that prejudice went both directions. One of our assignments was to recruit at Black Campuses. We had accepted readily. Why not?
When we began our recruitment efforts, we quickly realized that we were less than welcome, that there was a barely concealed resentment about our presence. No one yelled at us or threatened us, but the looks and mumbled side comments spoke volumes.
We were guilty of being white. It wasn’t who we were, what we were committed to, or what we had done; it was the color of our skin. It was a powerful lesson on the unthinking, disturbing nature of prejudice. A few weeks later the hatred it spawns would lead to one of America’s greatest tragedies.
It was in the spring of 1968 and we were recruiting at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown. It was our second visit to the campus and we felt like we were returning to see old friends. Students were excited about the Peace Corps and eager to sign up. We had set up our booth and were well into persuading students to leave the country when the news came.
Martin Luther King had been shot and killed.
For the second time in our relatively short lives (John Kennedy’s assassination was the first), we were struck by instant grief and anguish for someone we had never known, a man who had stood as a symbol of hope that the hatred and bigotry in America could be overcome, and that it could be done without violence.
The preacher of non-violence, the Christian black man with a golden voice and stirring words had been shot down in cold blood. Another hero was dead, destroyed because he believed that he could make a difference, shot down because he had dared to dream. And we were left with the question: why?
Today, the fact that a black man can serve as President of the US, speaks to how far we have come as a nation and honors the efforts of Martin Luther King.
Still, as King would remind us if he were alive today, the struggle against prejudice is not over, and may never be. Hate crimes are a daily occurrence in our world; people continue to discriminate against others because of their religion, ethnicity, sex, economic status and color of skin.
The best way to honor Martin Luther King, and the thousands of others who have sacrificed to make this a fair and just world, is to continue the struggle.