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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reflecting on the Meaning of Dr.King for a White Kid

I was growing up right in the time from the height of the civil rights movement to the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam war movement.  As an adolescent I watched civil rights demonstrators, including Dr. King and John L. Lewis beaten and attacked by dogs, and wept over the murders of civil rights organizers.  I learned the connection between race and poverty in America from the media, from books and from first hand exposure.  My sisters Mexican friends who lived a block away were poor.  But I also discovered that my white friends up the block and her white friends around the corner were also poor.  I also discovered that prejudice was not limited to race.  My class mates said horrible things about the mentally ill, which stung me, because my mother was mentally ill.

So the civil rights movement and Dr. King began to represent a lot of things to me. He was about a fight against prejudice and intolerance.  But he was also about fighting poverty.  He was about the bravery of non-violence.  He was about a group bringing itself up the way we Irish Catholics had.  But also about ending forever the holding of people down He was about legislation and government action that would help, but also about a change of  racial additude ,community norms. and institutional relationships.

President Johnson did some of the things King wanted, and I was very aware of the election between Johnson and Goldwater and what could be it's effect on war, poverty and race in America.  I viewed Goldwater as an extremist supported by people like my John Bircher Uncle.  I started to identify with the slain President and FDR whom many in the preceding generation admired.

But I went beyond those ideas, reading on my own and becoming disappointed when it became clear that the Vietnamese did not want us there and that Johnson was breaking his promise of a small war.  The civil rights movement had diminished by then and the student movement had burst onto the scene in Berkeley with the Free Speech Movement.  I had moved from Seattle to California by then and reading the liberal San Francisco Chronicle in the 1960's was like having a ringside seat on the student movement, the farmworker movement, the anti-draft protests, the Black Panthers.  Suddenly California was the nexus of the movement.

And the national news included Dr. King's poor people campaign, along with the northern efforts of the civil rights movement. Soon people were organizing everywhere, even in almost all white Appalachia. And Dr. King was trying to unite the civil rights movement, the anti-poverty movement, the labor movement and the peace movement.  

I quickly became anti-war, pro-farmworker and a young radical.  a pretty girl signed my yearbook "to my favorite radical." I volunteered at the local peace center and went to peace demonstrations.  I distributed anti-war materials to my classmates.  I prepared for applying for a Contentious Objector status or a refusal of induction.

I wasn't Black, Mexican or Indian, so except for the ethnic memory of anti-Irish prejudice and the prejudice against the mentally ill, I could only indirectly identify with minorities. Nor was I poor and I would not be so until some periods of my adulthood.  I had never known what it was like to be hungry, to old to be a depression baby and the son of a successful union electrician.

But I did know what being non-violent meant. My identification with King was increasing my identification with Ghandi.  I started to refuse to fight back against the bullies as my own commitment to peace.  That was my practice for draft resistance.

I went to a largely white school, a about 90% white.  But there was a a group of black kids from over in "the circles" which, together with the "boardwalk" area were the poor parts of Santa Cruz in those days. ( Now land prices there are too high for there to be a poor part.) There was also a sprinkling of Mexican kids, although most of the Mexicans lived on the other end of the county, in Watsonville. But the liberalizing influences of San Francisco and the new local UC campus were being felt and sentiment among my peers was running against the Vietnam war, and therefore for the poor and minorities.  King was a hero to most.

The day Martin Luther King was shoot we poured out of our classrooms in numbness and grief.  We had a assembly and after our principal spoke, Norman Gulliford, the youth leader for the local Black Panthers spoke. (I understand he is now known as Dr. X)  He read the Black Panther Program and talked about racism and capitalism..  None of the school officials tried to censor him.   We were released from school for the day and told we could go home, or downtown for a memorial march. A couple hundred of us went downtown and were joined by streams of adults and university students.  The weekend after the march the local left, in a rare burst of unity, tried to form a Martin Luther King Coalition of the NAACP, the Hispanic groups from Watsonville, the Panthers, the local peace groups and the anti-poverty groups.  But everyone was busy with their own organizations, so soon it became an unused spare desk in the Peace Center office.

We moved on as a country to other assassinations and tragedies and I moved on to no showing at my induction and doing my alternative service anyway, even though I had been denied my C.O. status.

Dr. King got lost in the shuffle as I became a more bitter opponent of the government and  our society forgot the civil rights and anti-poverty efforts.  But gradually both I and our country have recovered the legacy of Dr. King.

If Dr. King were alive today I am certain he would be marching for immigrant rights and fighting against the ways in which the Tea Party is trying to take away the fourteenth amendment.  He would be fighting against the dissolution of our social safety net. He would be telling middle class blacks and Hispanics not to forget the road they had to come down and to help the fight against poverty.  He'd be trying to get us out of Middle East Wars and trying to end unemployment.

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