Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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. 


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!


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.


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."   


I lived in the South in the 1960's. I know from first hand experience what Dr. King was talking about.  I don't want to see anything resembling that terrible time to occur in this country again.  Take a couple minutes and read the full text of Dr. King's speech, HERE.  If you wish to view it, you can do so by clicking HERE.  Whether you celebrate this day or not - whether you admired the man, or not - the message Dr. Martin Luther King delivered fifty years ago today should be remembered by all of us, for the message of hope it delivered and for the reminder that we still have a long, long way to go on that path.


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Blogger Joe said...

Great post GW!
Thanks for taking the time to write it up.
Perhaps someday we could collaborate on a book about Costa Mesa..

8/28/2013 08:25:00 AM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

Whoa... THAT Uncle George? Living legend! Wow - I am in awe. What a great remembrance, Geoff... a living witness to history.

It took me a long time, but I noticed that King spoke from notes at the beginning of the speech, but by 12:00 of the video, he's totally preaching and speaking from memory and making it up as he goes along. JFK watched this speech live on television and said to his aides "He's damn good."

8/28/2013 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...


Yeah, Mike H., those were special times. Aunt Joyce was an amazing, gracious woman and George, back in those days, was a dynamic, interesting guy. And his guests (except for me) were already legends. Pretty heady stuff for a skinny (back then) white kid from California.

8/28/2013 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger kwahlf said...

Thank you, Geoff for sharing your great story with us.
You experienced the deep south in the 60's, where the Civil Rights movement began. SoCal was not immune to discrimination. The Watts riots were the accumulation of tension and anger that had been building for many years.
We have come far since then, but we still have a long ways to go.
Thanks again, Geoff.

8/28/2013 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger valan2 said...

Thanks, Geoff, for a fascinating story and, more importantly, for your message.

So many (white) people think everything's O.K. now that we have a black president and we can all use the same drinking fountain. Many fail to understand the de facto segregation and discrimination that still exist in so many parts of our society. Much of that is the latent effect of now-illegal treatment that occurred decades or centuries ago.

But, much is the result of discriminatory feelings and actions that persist even today. All too often, we hear and see discriminatory or hateful comments and actions directed towards people of other colors, races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, etc.

Our Declaration of Independence says "all men are created equal." We must all work towards realizing this dream.

8/28/2013 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Mary Ann OConnell said...

Geoff, thanks for this meaningful commeration of a monumental event. It's up to all of us to keep his dream alive.

8/28/2013 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger Gericault said...

Interesting perspective....very well written.
It's like a Geoff Wests version of Forrest Gump.

Loved it.

8/28/2013 06:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Eleanor Egan said...

Thank you, Geoff, for sharing your story. I know you a little better now and appreciate you more.

Did you know California was involved in significant civil rights litigation many years ago over a Pasadena ordinance barring black people from public swimming pools? (Civil rights won.)

We do have a long way to go in making legal and social equality a reality. Each generation moves the mountain a little way.

8/28/2013 10:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Dark Moon said...

One of my favorite quotes is by Carrie Nation; “Ignorance is not innocence, it is the root of corruption.” My dad was CSM at Ft. Devens, MA when he decided to retire. The men lined the roads saluting him as we drove off the fort that last day. He could barely utter a word as he stopped one last time to speak to the guard at the gate. It wasn’t until this year, when looking at a model ship he had painted that I understood the term “Army green”. He painted the ship’s crew green head to toe. It hit me hard how much he must have missed the Army and his men, all of them. I was brought up to respect each person as they are; everyone has the same right to their spot on earth. We’re all green.

I was ten during Dr. King’s speech but I recognized it as important to our life time. I was outside playing that day but it was the topic of conversation at dinner. We took our plates on trays into the living room to watch the six o’clock news. People of color, a person of any color, were no big news to me but I knew Martin Luther King was a special man.

President Kennedy. 5th grade. I had just finished my music lesson; two of us. We were leaving back stage into hallway when the school’s janitor tore out of his supply room and sputtered to our music teacher that the president had been shot. My music teacher told us to go to our classes, which were getting ready to leave for the day. Obediently I walked down the hall to my class becoming more and more alarmed. I had visions of the Russians invading our streets and living in a state of Communism. I was terrified. When I walked into my classroom I walked up to my teacher, married to a General on the fort and told her what I had heard. She immediately gasped and became angry at how could I say such a thing! She would be calling my parents after class; go get in line. The children began teasing me on the bus. I sat silently crying, looking out the window watching for the tanks. When I walked into our home, my mom was vacuuming but turned it off when I broke down in the living room. She turned on the television and sat down and pulled me close. It was true, our president had died. Things would never be the same. Whatever else could have happened is imagination. Time to represent. My father was busy; we stood in the rain during military parades and cannon salutes. We ate our meals at the Mess Hall that weekend. On Monday my teacher stood up in front of the class and apologized to me. It was the first time that year I actually liked her.

You could feel an air of change from that summer leading into fall. Winter came. I sent a Valentine card to President Johnson, “I’m going to rope you for my Valentine,” and thanked him for keeping us safe. I received a reply from the White House thanking me for the card and my comments. My father was mortified when he first saw the envelope but smiled when I showed it to him. We lost some great men along the way who fought for what they believed. Some understood the importance and essence of their message and carried it forward into the future. Question everything but don’t condemn it just because it’s different. Laws were put into place to protect people while they were finally gaining their right to a spot here on earth. Our grand children and great grandchildren are multi-cultural and multi-racial, at least mine are; they are all loved. We all bleed red and we are all green. You are right Geoff; we do have a long way to go. You have to open your heart first, then your mind. Some people don’t like change, some are just plain hateful. It really is too bad, because you can learn so much.

I’ve seen a lot and have lived with many cultures. I think it would take a destruction of society and grow a new one to overcome the fear of integration. That stuff runs deep. I’ve seen the look on people’s faces and have run up against biased minds or when the room goes quiet. It takes a fierce spirit to get past that. Let’s do it. Don’t allow fear to rule your life or anyone else.

8/29/2013 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Where's My Coffee? said...

Dark Moon, thank you for that poignant and heartfelt comment.

8/30/2013 06:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Dark Moon said...

Where's My Coffee?, you're very welcome. I would have written more but it seems there's a word limit. :) I was raised by a father who believed and often told me that kids are people too. Sadly in our world adults aren't even given that respect. My other thoughts would take me off topic and I honestly do appreciate this forum and the energy it takes.

8/30/2013 10:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Ken Nyquist said...

Geroge Wallace comes to mind Geoff….

I am sure you remember the Second Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Georgia having to remove Wallace from the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama , Tuscaloosa in 1963 to allow blacks into the school…

Here are a couple of quotes from him…

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

"The President (John F. Kennedy) wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-communists who have instituted these demonstrations.”

I always thought Wallace was involved in James Earl Ray killing King, but Ray always denied that…

After Wallace was shot many years later he did become a Christian man, apologize for his past racist life, and live out his days attempting to support civil rights…From his wheelchair…

My honest opinion is we have have come a long way to have a person of mixed race elected as president…

8/30/2013 11:34:00 AM  

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