What MLK’s death meant to me.

Posted: January 20, 2020 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Actually, nothing. At least not at the time.

I barely knew who he was when that bullet slammed into him in 1968 while he stood on the second story balcony in Memphis. In fact, I don’t think I even knew he existed until it was on the news that night. I was 12 years old with more important things on my mind.

First and foremost, I was obsessed with a boy named Ted Ballard. I had been in love with him since I first saw him in 4th grade. We were the same age and in the same classes, year after year. There was a bunch of us that all went through the school system at the same time, so we knew each other because not only were we neighbors, we were all going to the same tiny school down the street.

It was the only one for miles. So, that’s where we went. We walked down the street, through a field, and then back onto another paved sidewalk. You followed that for a block, down a hill and there was the little school. It had a black top, a couple of buildings for our classes, a small playing field. It was fenced but not locked. We didn’t need locks in those days because everyone knew everybody. God help you if a neighbor saw you misbehaving; they would be on the phone to your mom and you knew you were in trouble before you even had time to close the front door when you got home.

Back then, neighbors watched out for each other and the children.

At that time, San Jose had just made it onto the Rand-McNally maps. When we had moved there from Fresno when I was 8, it literally was not on the map. My Dad had to figure it out as he moved us. You just headed towards San Francisco and tried to remember that little exit off 101 that would get you to that one-horse town called San Jose.

In 1968, Viet Nam was in our living room daily and very night. Every day we saw what was going on. We heard the bombings and the gun fire. We watched through our fingers as we covered our faces in hopes we didn’t see one of our own being blown to bits. We listened to the bull shit Lyndon Johnson said as he pushed and pushed and pushed for the war to continue.

The United States must not lose a war! Not now and not ever! To do so would hurt our pride and we never lose.

The Civil Rights movement was in full force. Again, I did not know who these people were and why they were so upset. There were marches and speeches and dogs attacking people, and fire hoses being used on them, but I was more concerned about what Ted was doing and what I should wear the next day to finally get him to see me and realize I was alive and perfect for him. I worked hard every night, trying to write the perfect love note to leave in his desk.

The notes only made it to my waste paper basket in tiny shreds in case one of my brothers found them. I would have died if they — or anyone — knew of my unrequited love.

(Years later, Ted finally noticed me as I was walking out of the bank. I didn’t know who he was. He was bald and apparently had not had an easy life, but that’s a story for another time).

By the time I was 16, I was a full-blown hippie. I had the hair and the look and I loved the idea of speaking out and going out of protest lines — even though my parents wouldn’t let me — I still loved the idea.

Feminism was arriving and the idea that I might actually have a choice about my life made me happy and scared and confused.

I mean, really, what the hell does a 16-year old know?

Absolutely nothing, but don’t tell them that. At that age, everything is possible.

I took a “Black History” class in High School and read books like “Soul on Ice” and had discussions about discrimination.

I had no idea. I had no clue that there were people out there that didn’t have the life I had. I just sort of assumed we all had it good. I learned that some people weren’t liked because of the color of their skin and some weren’t liked because of their gender.

I was not allowed to take auto mechanics simply because I was a girl. I had to take Home Economics (economics, my ass). I needed to learn how to cook and clean. I had to take typing (which, of course, now I’m really glad I did) and sit there, with my back straight and my hands posed “just exactly so” over the keyboard of the Royal typewriters, going clackity clack with 25 other girls. If you were going fast enough, the sound of the slamming back of the typewriter carriage to type the next line was almost poetic. Like a well -timed symphony.

Dr. King had only been killed about 2 years before I entered High School, but his influence was there. Us white kids comprised 99% of the attendance. Non-white kids were known — mostly Hispanic — to us and we all knew who the 2 or 3 black kids were.

We liked them well enough and they liked us. I wanted to ask them a million questions about their lives, but they weren’t dissimilar to mine.

Or so I thought at the time.

As I grew up and became an actual adult — which takes more time than I ever realized and I’m not fond of it — I started to walk in other people’s shoes. Some that had it better than I did, but mostly those that did not. Hookers, drug addicts, convicted felons, and the like.

I had to come face-to-face with my own prejudices that I didn’t know I had.

I often had large doses of humility when I would hear myself complain over the increased cost of Netflix while counseling a woman who had lost all her children to foster care. Yes, she had royally fucked up, but her heartbreak and wailing of the loss was often deafening. She couldn’t turn back the clock and she knew that. My job was to get her to see, with little baby steps, what she could do to turn her life around and get them back.

I had to swallow my pride and ask for help when I was just about to lose my house and end-up homeless. Fortunately the people that helped me, didn’t judge me.

I learned that if bad things could happen to me, who had it so much better than so many others, then maybe it wasn’t so much of a character flaw as it was just a difficult and almost impossible planet to survive on.

If it was hard for me, how hard must it be for the people that didn’t have the opportunities I had simply because of the color of their skin and/or where they were born?

I began to really look around me and see people everywhere, all with their fair shares of burdens and worries.

I began to feel disdain for those that had it so well and bragged about it. It wasn’t that I wanted what they had — no fucking way — but I wanted them to see how they could help, someone, anyone, and pay it forward.

I may not have much and I may have made huge mistakes in my life, but I began to feel compassion and empathy for those around me who always carried on and daily fought the good fight.

Through the internet, I began to learn more and more about Dr. King. I re-read some of the literature about the civil rights movement that I had smugly tossed aside in High School.

Forty years later, I grieved for the loss of him.

Forty years later, I admired his strength, compassion, intelligence, and perseverance.

Forty years later, I wished for his return.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ~ MLK

I may not be able to change the world today or tomorrow or ever, but what I can do is continue to work for justice in my home, my work, my neighborhood and when I vote.

I can speak out more and write more and learn more.

I can honor Dr. King for the work he did by learning more about the suffering that others have that I never did and work to help them lift themselves up.

It’s the least that I can do.

Comments
  1. MarlaHughes says:

    Because I grew up in Florida in a very racist area, going to school in a sundown town, I knew what racism was early. I had a mixed bag of racists/non racists in my immediate circles. For example, my parents were what I define as ‘soft racists’, understanding the issues black people had to deal with but not willing to have their daughters to ‘bring one home’. The cousins tripping the little black girls as they got on the bus was scary and made me cry because they had more social cache than I did and those little girls were my friends.

    So, MLK”s efforts resonated with me earlier because I was around people who were living it daily. I’ll never forget walking into the Chamber of Commerce and seeing “Ni**gerTown” in bold black on the city map. It designated where people could purchase good wood to build/repair houses or had to use tar paper and left over pieces if they could find them. And so much more.

    I love reliving your (and my) memories with you.

    • Susan Lewis says:

      I love it too. So nice to hear and learn about another. I never ever saw anything like that and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had as a child. The older I get, the more I love and appreciate the people who stood up, stood tall, and kept going.

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