Why do I remember some moments and not others? Some of the moments I remember seemed unrelated to each other as they occurred but now form a through line when I put them together from the perspective of age. And there have been moments that were not fully my own, moments that emanated from the milieu in which I lived them.
There was the moment I crossed paths with Martin Luther King. I was aware that he was the spiritual leader of the civil rights movement. I was an 11-year-old white kid, living a privileged life without knowing it, a life substantially ignorant of the American race issue. I remember hearing the words “integration” and “segregation” in those days but being confused about the definitions of those terms.
A different moment of racial awareness came a few years later. One day riding my bike in the park, I came across a group of four Black kids. I would have called them Negroes then. A few more years would go by before the term “Black” came into popular usage and James Brown’s famous “Say It Loud” recording hit the airwaves. I may have been a little older than these four Black kids, but they surrounded me, and one started to kick at my bike. At that moment, I thought that they were interested in stealing my bike if I gave them the opportunity, but I was able to get away, pedaling my bike as fast as I could. Now I wonder what became of them.
The nation’s moment of the March on Washington happened in August of 1963. I remember that my parents talked about going to the demonstration, and looking back now, I would like to be able to say that I was there. I remember—or I just want to remember—feeling excited about going to witness the events of that day in Washington. I knew just enough by then to understand that racial prejudice was wrong. Three weeks after the March, four Ku Klux Klan members planted 15 sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and injuring 14 other people.
In November of that year, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Spurred on by that terrible moment, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and President Johnson signed it into law in July. It was the Kennedy assassination, more than any other moment in my life, that made me care about the news.
March 1965 held the moment of Bloody Sunday in Selma and the images of the Alabama state troopers’ brutal attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
In a moment in April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, just eight years after my brief moment with him.
As a teenager, I developed an interest in theater. In the summer of 1965, I was cast with a Black girl to play a scene from Millay’s Aria da Capo. The scene culminated in a kiss. That is, it was supposed to. The director asked if I felt okay about the kiss, and I, having never yet kissed any female, said that I would be uncomfortable doing it. I do not recall for certain whether in that moment the girl expressed any discomfort with the kiss idea. I suspect she was probably fine with it. Was my reluctance racially motivated?
In college, I remember there was some swapping of dorm rooms, and I agreed to room with a Black guy. I remember enjoying Reggie’s company. I don’t remember other students saying much to me about the dorm arrangement, but there were occasional peculiar looks and a vibe of ridicule. There was a Black girl among the small group of friends I hung out with. Although my relationship with Ann was mostly platonic, after a while we became tentatively intimate.
Do I write about these interracial friendships and moments of awareness to prove a point? If so, it is not that I have no prejudice. I am too much a product of American culture to believe that I am without prejudice. I remember these moments because they are part of my story, and I think they reflect possibility more than proof of anything.
I do not recall hearing racially prejudiced language from my parents, and in that respect, they raised me well. They themselves had more to overcome, for their fathers and mothers had joined the Ku Klux Klan craze that swept the country in the 1920s. So, I am just one generation escaped from that twisted ideation, and if my story means anything, it is that progress—an evolution of cultural values toward a less prejudiced society—is possible. Yet far too many of my contemporaries do not evidence that evolution. Their parents did not break away, did not escape from a racially hostile past. And that past is still relentlessly perpetuated.
Some other stuff for later,
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