Monday, January 20, 2020. Well, we finally got some snow on Saturday last. It started in the late morning and by mid afternoon the cars, the sidewalks and the roads were white with it. Then the temps rose a bit and the snow turned to rain and by Sunday morning it was swept clean by Mother Nature, and the temperatures rose into the mid-40s by Sunday.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in what would have been his 91st birthday. He was less than three months into age 39 on that fateful day in 1968. He was six months older than Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. I don’t know if he ever met her. He might have because by John Kennedy’s Presidency the Civil Rights movement was in full force and the President was moved by it. I thought of Mrs. Onassis when I saw his birth year because she shares it, and it naturally occurred to me that those two were highly influential people of their time, although Dr. King’s influence was universal.
I remember when Dr. King started his odyssey for Civil Rights back in the late ’50s, early ’60s. It was “Down There” or “Over There,” and definitely “Not Here,” in my world, so it was almost incomprehensible to this teenager.
My first year in college there were political protest committees burgeoning to support and bring about Civil Rights legislation. There were sit-ins, and marches, and heated meetings. I participated in none of them. I also didn’t see their value or their potential impact. I read newspapers and Time magazine, all of which reported these events and activities. They didn’t see value or potential impact either. And politicians spoke of only one color: Red – meaning Russia.
I was a Northern white boy, from a barely-getting-by working class family, in a community where I don’t recall ever seeing a person of color who would have been, if and when, referred to as a “colored” or a “Negro” or in the schoolbooks where “they” were called “slaves,” or the “n” word which I never used because I didn’t like the sound of it on people’s lips.
Thinking back on it, it seems inconceivable (and therefore not true) that I never saw a person of color — which would include Asians (then referred to as “Orientals” or “Japs” or “Fillipinos”). Puerto Ricans were the closest I came to seeing another so-called “ethnic.” And the Puerto Ricans were present only during the summertime when the tobacco farmers needed cheap labor to pick and haul the plants. Off-hours, they drank and got into episodes with the cops (or vice versa). Or so we were told. They were regarded as quite naturally lower on the ladder of life.
These expressions of bigotry weren’t hotly declared. They were even rarely expressed, as if it had little to do with life outside Our Town, our street, our neighborhood.
In my father and mother’s house there were references to dagos, ginnies, wops, spics, frogs, polacks (always preceded by “dumb”), Reds, DP’s (displaced persons), who were usually regarded as the worst of all — which meant Commies or Reds. And, oh yes, the Jews who might be called kikes or mockies (an earlier 20th century New York word), or yids.
My father, who was a Brooklyn born Irish-American used all of the above “names” in his angrier conversations. Excluding, of course, the “fightin'” Irish. Nor do I recall his ever being confronted by anyone for his language. Not that his day to day talk was peppered with those words. They were not used frequently, because those to whom those names were directed were not present enough to provoke it.
As children we were most familiar with the word polack in my hometown. The “dumb Polacks” lived on the other side of the bridge, on the other side of town. They were the day to day bottom rung of the social ladder in this small New England town which bore as much resemblance to Peyton Place as any other.
Years later when my eldest maternal aunt died, another aunt, my favorite, told me in passing that “they’d put in the paper that she was born in Poland.”
“Oh? And was she?” I asked.
Yes. “But we don’t want anybody to know.” And why? “Because of all those (Polish) jokes.” My aunt, as I said, my favorite aunt, was a very sweet woman whose affection meant everything to me when I was a child. But she was ignorant of her prejudice. We were all ignorant. In fact, she was lying about herself which she had learned to hold in disrespect. Many of us still are. Maybe most. Ignorance is self-perpetuating poverty.
Dr. King started having his greatest impact when the Kennedy Administration apparently began to listen to his message. Then I began to hear and see. For the first time in my life. I was not alone. That March on Washington was packed with people like me, although I did not march. The specter of Vietnam, the murder of JFK, were elements that conjoined with the words and activities of Dr. King, in my developing consciousness. He was my teacher.
I am a child of Dr. King, as are many, if not all, of my generation and those who have followed. Before he came into our lives, I was — like many; maybe most white Americans — highly unaware of the plight and realities of people of color in this country. Despite the centuries-old evidence of massive injustice.
It took the work of Dr. King and his followers and exponents, and Rosa Parks, to get the ball rolling. When it was starting to take hold of the public discussion, people didn’t like what was happening. White people that is — people in the North — aside from whatever they thought of it in the South. They didn’t understand it. What we call racial prejudice was so built into our way of thinking that it was not exercised with any malicious intent on the part of most, but instead unconsciously. The institutional and societal racism that preceded my generation was mainly an unconscious habit. The racial profile that was presented as consensus was accepted as matter of fact. It had been in place as such for hundreds of years. Few perceived that it was merely a convenient, indeed shrewd grasp for authority, political and otherwise.
There were many white people who did not feel that way, of course — those men and women who recognized the reality of our differences and politicization of the matter. These were generally very intelligent people and/or people who had personal relationships, close or frequent, with people of color. Or just plain knew better.
Then one day Rosa Parks got on the bus and was just too damned tired after her day’s labor to trudge all the way to a seat in the back just to accommodate that age-old prejudice. And so she let truth and reality lead her. Talk about moving mountains. Then the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a preacher man from Atlanta, a proponent of Mahatma Gandhi (although that wasn’t known or recognized at the time) came along, started something, and finished the task for Mrs. Parks and the rest of us.
He made a lot of people very angry. A lot. A lot of the time. I’m sure he still does for some. But about 1960, the movement’s influence had struck a chord on many college campuses. This was the dawn of a revolutionary moment in America, a movement that was a force of change. It was in the air. It is still debated as if someone could have stopped a tsunami with an opinion.
In his early days of prominence there was a lot of spying on Dr. King, and a lot of scandal-mongering. A womanizer, it was said he was. A dastardly womanizer. Uh-huh. Oh, a bad man. It never seemed to occur to the accusers in mutual condemnation that it takes one to know one. And he was merely a man, like the rest of us (men).
The business of one’s sex-life is a massively widespread obsession in popular Western culture, far more serious to some than the environmental and cultural issues threatening human existence on the planet. And so it was widely publicized in the case of Dr. King. Nevertheless he soldiered on.
At the moment he was murdered in cold blood on that motel balcony in Memphis he had already achieved the unachievable. Although we were not aware of it specifically, he had completed his work. His participation, his leadership and his words, had effectively changed the consciousness of America. He was not here to see it, but in his final speech given just before his death, he articulated it. So somewhere he knew.
There are those who would disagree, but it doesn’t matter; it’s done, and evident in the youngest generations of Americans and in every social group.
As a citizen of this great City of New York, with all its flaws and issues, riding the subways and the buses, I see it: our separation from one another is no longer culturally racial. So-called mixed marriages are ordinary and not even relevant in terms of race. Ride the subway and look at the faces of the young people riding with each other. There is the evidence and the confirmation. The young among the riders today are not infrequently multi-racial — not one, nor two, or even three, but sometimes all in the makeup of a single individual. This is the world now. This is the result of what we can identify as the American Civilization. Hitler and his Nazis, or anyone else’s notion of racial superiority, is just another whine for prejudice. And prejudice is always a lie anyway, no matter its object or person.
However, despite the tragedy of the Martin Luther King’s murder, his spirit is omnipresent, as witnessed by the faces and the attitudes and familial alliances of the younger generations that I see in my daily travels around the city. He was a gift for all of us; an affirmation of the reality of this planet experiencing the phenomenon of change. He was the man, the voice for all. Like Gandhi, he understod the natural order of things. Mother Nature doesn’t care how we feel about personal prejudice and those who embrace it. No matter who we are or seem to be, she could give a damn. Dr. King had evidently always known that. That was his final and lasting bequest.