The Dream... Unfulfilled
Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. before an estimated quarter million people. According to most observers, this was the seminal moment of the modern civil rights movement in this country. Because I lived through, and much too near, some of the events that marked that time in this country's history, I'd like to share some of that history with you. Bear with me... it's a long story.
A TYPICAL WHITE KID
When Dr. King gave that speech I was a 22-year-old southern California kid who had just dropped out of college for the second time to earn money so I could continue later. I was a fairly typical middle class white kid, who did middle class white kid stuff. I had girlfriends, did water-oriented sports - spent time at the beach, swimming, water polo and water skiing - and had gone to schools which had not a single black person in them. In fact, it wasn't until I went in the Army that I actually met a black person. It wasn't something I worried about - I just never gave it a thought.
BARELY AWARE OF THE SPEECH
Dr. King's speech was near the end of the summer of 1963 and I remember being vaguely aware of it. I was busy working, dating, water skiing and having a good old time. Then I got my draft notice.
CALLED TO DUTY
It was the beginning of the ramp-up of the Viet Nam War and my lottery number came up. I recall taking my draft physical exam, but not being particularly worried about joining the Army. The thought never crossed my mind to somehow evade the draft. It was a duty I felt obligated to fulfill. Then John F. Kennedy was killed just three weeks before I was scheduled to be inducted.
BURNED IN MY MEMORY
I still recall that day like it was yesterday. I was measuring homes for carpet and was on my way to Santa Monica for my next assignment and couldn't find any music on my car radio. The wind was blowing over my buzz-cut head - as a swimmer, I hadn't had hair longer than about an eighth of an inch for a couple years - as I drove my '57 Chevy convertible to the next job with the top down. It was a perfect southern California day. Finally, I just quit pushing buttons on my old AM radio and listened to the news and heard of Kennedy's assassination. Not quite sure what I should be doing, I continued to the home, rang the bell and an elderly gentleman answered with tears in his eyes. On the black and white television I could see news reports of the event. I offered to reschedule, but he and his wife invited me in and I spent the next half hour crawling around their home, measuring the rooms, listening to the news in the background and hearing both of them sobbing quietly. I'll never forget that day.
The middle of December I was inducted into the Army and I finally had my first up-close-and personal experiences with black men, although it didn't really register that they were black - we were all in the same boat, dealing with the stress that was basic training at Fort Ord. I do recall our drill instructor - a very fit black sergeant who relished chiding us as he did one-armed push-ups. The objective was to break us down physically and mentally, then rebuild us to become soldiers. They generally succeeded.
THE BIG APPLE
After basic training I was sent, along with three classmates, to New York City, where my typing speed on a frigid, damp winter morning at Fort Ord had qualified me to be a clerk at the Army Pictorial Center - formerly the Paramount Studios - in Queens. It was an unusual post. The main facility was the studio and our barracks building was just across the street. For the next several months I was a soldier in New York City, trying to deal with life in the big city on $99.00 a month, gross. It was an experience unlike anything before in my life - and it was then that I made my very first black friend.
Hayes Manning and I were two of four guys who shared a "bay" - a cranny with two sets of bunk beds and a chair and table in that large barracks building. We didn't choose each other - we were thrown together - but we developed a friendship in our few months together that lasted the rest of his lifetime - he died a couple years ago.
Hayes was an educated man from San Francisco - a bit of a snob with a very interesting life. His father went to Harvard and his mother attended Radcliffe. His aunt Joyce was married to jazz promoter George Wein- the man behind the Newport Jazz Festival, who has been described as "the most important non-player in jazz history." I only mention this because Hayes and I would occasionally take the subway to Aunt Joyce's house on Central Park West and just hang out - an island of respite from our military lives. In almost every case jazz musicians of world renown would also be there, hanging out and playing their music. It was a surreal time for me, with Uncle George and I the only white men in the building most of the time. Folks like Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, for example, were regulars. These were the black people in my life at that time.
A BIG DECISION
Several months later I applied and was accepted to the Warrant Officer Flight school to learn to fly helicopters. The Viet Nam War was escalating and the Army needed pilots - bus drivers to shuttle soldiers around the battlefields. I didn't want to waste my time in the Army sitting on my fanny, typing orders all day - that seems very ironic now, considering how I spend most of my days. So, in October of 1964 off I went to the primary flight school just outside Fort Worth, Texas.
In the meantime, deep in the south, three young civil rights workers were kidnapped and killed just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. You'll understand why I mention this shortly.
I went to rotary wing flight school and excelled. I was the second man in my class of 142 to pass my solo check ride after 5 hours of instruction. I would have been the first, but I blew my first check ride. That's another story. Unfortunately, after three months of flying, an eye problem grounded me just as my class was moving on the the Advanced School at Fort Rucker, Alabama - deep, deep in the armpit of the south. I transferred with my class, but never flew a helicopter again.
DRIVING THROUGH THE SOUTH
On the way from the primary school I drove myself and my best friend in flight school across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and on into Alabama. We crossed Mississippi a few miles from Philadelphia at a time when racial tension was extreme. In fact, as we drove through Montgomery, Alabama before turning south to Fort Rucker - which was near the Alabama, Florida, Georgia borders - we crossed the Pettus Bridge, the day before the first so-called Freedom March. Having been sequestered in flight school for a few months, we didn't know a thing about it, although we did see a couple hundred state trooper cars at the barracks on the north side of the bridge. At the time, although I didn't know it, my friend had a loaded .357 Magnum pistol under his seat in the car. If we, two white guys in a car with California plates, had been stopped and that gun found we'd have been lucky to go to jail. I recall thinking at the time that you could cut the tension with a knife - it was very much like pre-lynch scenes in "B" movies of the 1940's. It was a strange time.
So, off we went to Fort Rucker where my friend and my other classmates finished their training and graduated in July - 87 of the 142 made it. Of those men, 80 went to the First Cavalry Division (Air mobile) at Fort Benning, Georgia, five went directly to Viet Nam and two went to Korea, then were assigned on temporary duty to Viet Nam. The entire First Cav. Division went en masse to Viet Nam in September, so my entire class was there within a few months of graduation. Six of them didn't make it through their first tour.
I, on the other hand, remained at Fort Rucker while the Army tested me for the eye problem. They never figured it out, so I served the remainder of my enlistment there in the bowels of bigotry. This was a part of the country that really hadn't yet joined the 20th Century. In those days folks in Alabama worshiped University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, Governor George Wallace and God, in that order. In Dothan - the closest town of any size to the post - blacks still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains and were required to buy tickets to the movies on the opposite side of the ticket window and were forced to sit in the balcony. Three weeks before I left active duty a cross was burned on the lawn of a black sergeant ON POST!
MURDER THE NORM
During the 1960's the KKK still dominated much of the social and political life in the American South. Children were being murdered as black churches were burned with them inside. Black men were lynched with regularity.
Some of you will remember that the summer of 1965 was the time of the Watts Riots. I recall sitting in the day room in our company area watching television before the riots - blacks and whites co-mingled and having a good old time. However, when the riots began everything changed. Blacks would sit on one side of the day room and cheer as the television showed black looters dragging televisions and other stuff out of stores. The whites sat on the other side of the day room and cheered when the National Guard opened fire. It was never the same again.
I got out of the Army near the end of 1965, just as Viet Nam was boiling over, got a job, got married, and with my lovely and patient wife, moved around the country for my employer for several years before settling here in Costa Mesa 40 years ago. We lived in Houston in the late 1960s when it was the murder capitol of the country - mostly blacks killing blacks - and many of our native Texan friends still uttered the "N-Word" in casual conversation.
During those years, as we moved around the country and later, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Ronald Reagan was shot, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, Bill Clinton set a new low bar for personal behavior in office, a father and son named Bush served as President, we managed to embroil ourselves in yet another unpopular war in a far away place and this country elected a black man as President - twice.
And yet, a half-century later, Dr. King's dream remains unfulfilled. Black unemployment is double - in some areas triple - the average and many of our black-dominated cities are in deep trouble. Detroit is the best/worst example of that.
SCHOOLS FAILING, PRISONS PACKED
Most large metropolitan schools are fully integrated - and many are failing. Prisons are filled to overflowing, and the biggest demographic in those prisons is black young men. According to recent statistics, non-Hispanic blacks - which represent just under 14% of the population - account for more than 39% of the prison population. 1 in 11 black men are in prison! Let that sink in a little. Over 9% of black men in this country are in prison!
By every measure of success blacks lag significantly behind whites in this country - education, economic prosperity - you name it. I sit here, in a community where the black population is tiny and even smaller in the community with which we share a common border to the south. We are in an area where we just don't have much to do with black Americans, so we don't think about them very much.
So, today, on this anniversary - a date that most black Americans will celebrate and many white Americans will not - I wonder why more progress has not been made in the half-century since Dr. King uttered those words, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."