As completely unbelievable as it sounds, my not-politically-aware-in-any-sense family was involved, ever-so peripherally, in a pivotal milestone of this country’s civil rights movement fifty years ago next Wednesday.
In August 1963 uppermost in my five-year-old mind would have been starting first grade just after Labor Day, a week or so away. There was no kindergarten for poor and lower, middle-class kids in South Knoxville in those days, so my first brush with the educational system would be first grade.
I was the youngest (and shortest!) kid in my class because at that time Knoxville’s children entered first grade if they turned 6 years old before the end of the calendar year. My birthday was a few weeks before December 31, 1963, so I was just old enough to begin first grade.
As I studied my navel in great excitement and apprehension about starting school, my family took an uncharacteristic trip. Daddy had relatives who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Bethesda, just outside Washington, DC. Nearly all my father’s male relatives were long-haul truck drivers. But if memory serves, we went to D.C. to visit Daddy’s closest cousin, Frank, who was stationed there in the military.
Within a few years, Frank would be a helicopter pilot ferrying wounded 19-year-old boys, often through sometimes heavy ground fire, out of the jungles of the Vietnam War. Frank, his wife Dicey, their kids, and Frank’s mother, who we called Aunt Irmy, were all living in an apartment near our nation’s capital.
In retrospect the trip seems like madness. Lord knows we didn’t have the money to go. Daddy’s old, broken-down car with bare tires would have a blowout on the way back; and to make matters worse, my father was suffering with an aching tooth that he got pulled while we were in Maryland.
For whatever reason as accidents of fate will happen, my Daddy had chosen the very time for us to visit his relatives in D.C. when blacks–and the aware-and-fighting-for-justice whites who supported them–marched on Washington, as the gathering and speeches on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, came to be known. This public demonstration was a call for civil justice and human rights for our country’s former slaves who were still, a century after their so-called emancipation, not allowed full citizenship in the country of their birth.
In the early ’60s, the U.S. was still practicing varying degrees of citizenship denial to people of color. Northern and Western states had their prejudices and segregated schools, and blacks were relegated to live in what would be called the colored part of town. And that description would be used by the kinder, more genteel white folks.
But in the South–and especially the Deep South–segregating the races was more obvious and bitterly exercised. Where the North would have its more covert prejudicial ways, the South enforced its prejudices with whites-only signs over water fountains and whites-only waiting areas in bus stations. Blacks were not allowed to stay in white hotels or eat at white restaurants or lunch counters, swim in whites-only pools, and if they tried to exercise their voting rights, blacks could end up with a cross burned in their yard or lynched from a tree.
Of this struggle and unrest and its ramifications, my family understood almost nothing. And as a 5-year-old, sheltered little white girl, I was completely ignorant of the history taking place around me. I do not, for instance, recall ever seeing a whites-only sign–ever. Possibly that could be because Knoxville’s mayor, John J. Duncan Sr., incrementally ended some of Knoxville’s more obviously segregated public life in extensive negotiations that took place in 1960 and again in 1963, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel’s article at:
I heard my parents and the other adults talking in fearful, lowered voices about the “colored” people marching and what they would do. Riots were expected, and the grown-ups were afraid to be on the streets the day of the protest. Who knew what the blacks would do, they mused back and forth.
Fear is a peculiar thing. It makes stick figures of us all. But not only just my family was concerned about the march and its possible violence. Our nation’s President John F. Kennedy called the march’s organizers to his office before the event and asked them to exercise caution. Getting together hundreds of thousands of people can be volatile and unpredictable, and he was hoping the march would be a peaceful one.
After the event, President Kennedy congratulated the civil rights leaders on the non-violent gathering. JFK could not possibly have foreseen that within three months his assassination in a Southern city, Dallas, Texas, would be a catalyst toward a more just future for black Americans. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson was able to force through Congress civil rights legislation and Great Society safety net legislation to provide relief for the poor.
Within a few years, the assassination of legendary civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King would galvanize the civil rights movement. At the 1963 gathering in front of the Washington monument, his ringing “I Have a Dream” speech would be applauded as a good speech, but not the historically earth-shattering one that it would be seen as later.
President Kennedy did not live with constant fear of assassination as King did. Martin Luther King knew he could be killed at any time, and he seemed to foresee his death when he spoke the words of his final speech the night before he was gunned down.
“I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would be placed beside his “Mountaintop” speech as bookends transcending their words to define a time and place when change that once had seemed impossibly remote, moved incrementally toward a time when the first black man, President Barack Obama, was elected to lead our country in 2008.
Not everything was solved in Washington in 1963, in 2008, or is being solved in the fleeting now of 2013. But as my family cowered from the fear of large numbers of blacks protesting for civil rights, we could not know that their actions would open up a corridor of possibility for poor whites, such as my family, as well.
The touchstone dominos of the civil rights movement were made possible by the legislation President Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death. Those bills not only enforced voting rights for black Americans and gave them broader access to opportunities once only open to whites, but they helped poor white kids like me who found a way to attend college on a Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG) and academic scholarships.
When I was a young child, toothaches were handled by shooting the messenger, whether that messenger was your aching tooth or a public figure you did not agree with. Although we do not have a perfectly well-ordered and just country today–and sometimes we seem to have nothing but a barely anesthetized mouth that is being drilled on by Congress to achieve nothing at all–we do have the more preventive care of removing the diseased portion of the tooth that offends us and replacing it with a durable filling of porcelain, silver, or the occasional gold of justice.
The early European settlers of this country came to the New World in hopes of having opportunity, their own land, and a better future for their children. Or they were sent or fled here because they were social, political, or religious outcasts. Or they were brought here as indentured servants who worked off their passage, or they were Africans who were brought here and sold into slavery.
However, we got here, we are all Americans. We need to take a page out of the French playbook. Their country’s motto is:
~ Anna – 8/24/2013