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In 1968 - From A Letter To A Friend
I had arrived in New York in the same year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King got assassinated.
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In 1968 - From A Letter To A Friend
My boss was a black man, whose parents were from Jamaica. They had fled to New York, because she was marrying a man with much darker skin than hers, and her family was up in arms over it. She was also "black," even though her skin was whiter than mine.
The man, whose name was Vince, wanted me to experience a civil rights event. He bought me a place on the chartered buses reserved by Jesse Jackson. When we arrived that morning, only six other persons, besides Jesse, showed up. One was Flo Kennedy, civil rights lawyer, and some were from a church I forgot the name of.
We rode off to Washington, DC. I sat in one seat alone, immersed in my thoughts, when a voice spoke from the seat behind me.
"Why are you here?"
I saw Jesse looking me in the face, waiting for an answer. I marveled at how smooth and young he was, almost like a high school kid. I was not precocious in those days. In fact, was an introvert, who in childhood exhibited symptoms of autism.
"I wanted to see how these things work," I replied.
"You're going to see how they work, all right," he said, beaming.
He hesitated to see if I had more to say, but I had exhausted my store of talk with the one sentence. He moved away.
The object of the trip was multiple. First on the agenda, we went to the White House, bearing a tent. We placed it on the grass with the avowed intent to erect it and then paint it black. "The Black House."
Police filled the area, outnumbering us by seven or eight, I would guess, since memory fails here. The women passed out buttons proclaiming the cause. When they approached Vince, he backed away, suddenly frightened. I guess he expected the law to take us to jail if we went too far. His fear communicated itself to me, and I too backed away, feeling ashamed because I wouldn't wear a simple button.
Jesse announced that we had accomplished our goal after about fifteen minutes of negotiations with the police.
We left and went to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 1968 Mothers March on Washington, protesting the Vietnam War, was about to get underway.
We fell in behind the people. Senator Percy of Illinois, his secretary fell in beside me.
"I'm here, because my son is over there, and I want him safely home."
She was very pleasant, and she kept trying to convince me I ought to apply at the Smithsonian to be a security guard.
At John Kennedy's grave, they made speeches, and then we marched back to the Memorial.
From there, we eight were taken to a prominent black church, I don't know where. The minister was named Floyd McKissik. We waited about a half hour in an outer hall. I don't know where Vince was. I stood on the floor alone, feeling vulnerable. I heard a woman's voice speaking.
"I would like to ask a question." I saw a beautiful young woman, with fire in her eyes. She waited until she had all our attention. She pointed at me. "What's he doing here?"
They all showed by their actions that they were also curious. I was morbidly shy in those times. Feeling as though I might sink into the floor, I forced myself to speak. Stammering, I told how I had come with Jesse and how I was opposed to the war. They mostly smiled with understanding, and the tension melted away.
We went in to listen to Floyd.
"Don't come to our neighborhoods to teach about civil rights," he said. I followed his gaze and saw a sprinkling of white liberals in the pews. "We know about civil rights. Stay in your own neighborhoods and teach. That's where they don't understand about civil rights."
One white man was outraged. "Where does that leave us, after all our years of hard work?"
"If you really are our friend, you will understand."
Jesse cancelled the tour bus and bought train tickets for the journey home. As we boarded the coach, Ms Kennedy handed us each a Sunday paper. Our White House Adventure, had gotten us a small square at the bottom on page one.
That was my first experience in both civil rights and war protest actions. Not my last, by any means. One of the great lessons I learned that day was, as Floyd McKissick pointed out, "Teach civil rights in your own neighborhood, where they need it the most." And I have, in my own small way. When a person acts through predjudice in my sight, I make it known that their behavior is unacceptable. I teach by personal example. I have no status in the community, but my associates all know where I stand.
Sorry for such a long letter. I was seized by the moment.
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© 2008 Charles Turner
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