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Coming of Age Drama Creative Nonfiction

More than fifty years ago, I entered a world I had never known existed. This was the summer of 1966, Chicago, featuring Mayor Daley, and ice cream cookies his Mob gave to Black children when their parents delivered them their ballots, unmarked. They let that mob vote for them! I climbed the stairs of gang-infested high-rise buildings. I was mesmerized seven or eight times by the words of Martin Luther King. I emerged a very different person.

The electrifying Fourth of July was an afternoon with Dr. King and a march to City Hall on defiance of Mayor Daley, and an evening concert with the most incredible singer I have ever heard, Marian Anderson. And then, on top of everything, came the fireworks

Was that really more than fifty years ago? It doesn’t seem like it. I can still remember all the details, like it happened yesterday. 

I flew into Chicago, a college coed, intent on ending the dress standards and stultifying hours imposed on the women at the University of the Pacific, my university. I left there far more intent on finding ways to bring true equality to all, regardless of color. Fighting for the women at UOP now seemed trivial.

How could I help mothers living in high-rise public housing who had to choose?They could let their children play in playgrounds they could not even see from their living window, in a neighborhood plagued by drug addicts and drugs pushers and assorted gangs. Or they had to keep their children close, in tiny apartments with broken air conditioners and the outside halls reeking of urine.

How could I condone the sheer hatred I experienced from the Chicagoans who greeted me when I marched through their neighborhoods?

I converted that summer. I could no longer be a naive privileged White girl. And, as I thought out the path I needed to follow, I called my father to explain all this to him. After this monumental call, I was cut loose.  Since I was no longer appreciative of my family’s White privileged bounty, my father tried to cut me off.

Here is my side of the conversation I had with him in late July, 1966:

Hi Dad. I know I haven’t written very often. I’ve been too busy. And, I know you worry about me. I am just too busy, so I am calling you today. I am glad we can talk long-distance. Yes, I’m fine….Really fine.

Yeah. I know about those eight student nurses. Such a tragedy. Raped and tortured, then murdered. Richard Speck. He did it! 

How far from where I’m staying to where they were? Maybe a mile at the most. But I know I’m safe in my dorm. Don’t worry.

And, yes, I know there’ve been riots in Chicago. You can’t blame the kids who started it. It’s been hot here recently. And all they did was to turn on a fire hydrant to cool down. What’s wrong with that?

Oh, where were the riots? A ways from my dorm, maybe a block or two. Yeah. I went to a concert with this guy on my birthday, July 15, when the riots were boiling. We needed a police escort to get home. The Cops saw us walking right towards the trouble. They were afraid for white people walking around there. But I was OK. Because I’m white, the Cops looked after me! Nothing for you to worry about.

Yeah. I spend my weekdays going in and out of these high-rise apartments near where we stay. They’re called Robert Taylor Homes. For about two miles these massive concrete structures line the street, so big that for every three of them, they can fill a whole elementary school. And outside they only have this tiny area with a few swings for the kids to play. 

The buildings are so tall their parents can’t even see their kids playing, can’t supervise anything. And the elevators don’t always work. And they reek of urine. And even when they do work, and they go up, they’re slow. It can be dangerous because you don’t always know who’s in there with you. But you don’t want to climb all those stairs to the seventh floor, either.

We go into these apartments to find their community leaders. Dr. King wants those guys to help organize the marches he has, and to plan their own demonstrations. Like, organize them for action. This End the Slums that SCLC is doing is a grassroots organization, and I help them find the people who can start that grass growing.

Oh, yeah, Dad, I’m safe in those buildings. Some guy always meets us at the El stop and walks us into the building we want to go to. Stays with us on the elevators and all. I don’t think I’d go there alone. I’m pretty careful. 

Yes. I’m marching with Dr. King, too. We go out on Sundays, to White communities. We gather in a park or something, then walk around the neighborhood. 

No. the Whites don’t want us to come through these neighborhoods. They yell at us. They say they’re going to hurt us, beat us with the sticks some of them carry. You don’t have to worry, though, Dad. Those news people blow everything out of proportion.

The worst thing that happened to me? This three-year-old kid spit on me and called me Nigger-lover. You know, his father cheered him on? I cried! The little boy was so sweet looking, and yet he was already learning to hate! This has gotta end!

Yes. I was in the march last Sunday. Yes, Dad, I knew Dr. King had been hit with a rock someone threw. But there were lots of people there to help him. And they cleared him out quickly before he got really hurt. And we were pretty far back. Nothing happened to us. We got to the end of the march and back to our cars without any incident. I was safe. Really safe!

Next week we’re going to march in Cicero. They have this law there that says all Blacks must be out of there before sundown. They’re really racist there, hate King and all us followers. They say they’ll kill us if we come. But that’s OK! Our non-violence only shows how morally wrong they are when they try to attack us. I’ll be safe. And careful!

No, Dad, I am not going to skip that march. So it could be dangerous? They want to get to King and Jesse Jackson, and his leaders, not us. Nothing’s going to happen! If I don’t go because I’m scared off, those racists will win. Don’t worry! You know. I’m 21 now. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.

Yes. Dr. King has rallies at this AME church a couple of miles from here. We all go every week. Yes. I’ve seen him speak about five times now. He is electric. Jesse James does a sort of warm up. And then Dr. King speaks. And we sing a few songs. We always end with “We Shall Overcome.” We are all holding hands And, by then I am in tears. I am so moved by these rallies.

I actually met Dr. King last week. I got to shake his hand. You know what I remember most about that? How warm and alive my hand felt! He’s short, really short! Like way under five foot-six.

Of course you know how the Whites have oppressed the Blacks over the centuries. You’ve told me that. The goal of SCLC this summer is to end slums. We want to get affirmative action for Blacks, overthrow Jim Crow as it works in the North. 

The realtors here in Chicago do this thing called red-lining. They won’t show any house owned by a White to a Black family unless they have decided that this neighborhood is ready to go Black. Then they sell all these homes to Blacks and the Whites lose all the value in their homes. They’re frightened to sell to Blacks. Should one white family sell to a Black. Their neighbors would kill them. You know how important it is to end slums, to get Black children into schools where White children go. That’s where the good education is.

You know that, Dad. You’ve fought hard to integrate Berkeley’s schools. That’s all Dr. King wants for Chicago, and the rest of the country, too. I remember two years ago, when the Freedom Riders were down in the deep South. You told all your friends I should be there. You promised me that if King did it again you’d help me to go. And that was dangerous. People got killed there. Nobody’s been killed here!

I love you, Dad. But there is something else we need to talk about. You know how we are comfortable where we live. How we have this beautiful house with a few oak trees in the yard and the view of the San Francisco Bay? And we have two cars. And you pay for me to go to a private university?

Well, you know, we are part of the cause of the problems I see here in Chicago. Really! I know you’ve worked hard to get all this for us. I know. You were raised in poverty. I know your mother had to work outside the home at night. I know when you were 13, you had to be responsible for your younger brother and sister. I know it was hard. I know you faked your age to graduate early so you could go out and earn more money to support your mother. But you were White. You found all the help you needed. And everything turned out fine for you and your family.

Think of what could have happened if you were Black, and the help you needed wasn’t there because of your skin color. Is it fair that you could make it and these folk in Robert Taylor Homes can’t? Since they’re Black, they cannot have the opportunities you had.

You know. I think you are wasting money. You need to share with people like these Blacks here in Chicago. We can give up one car in our garage. Mother would be able to find ways to get groceries and go to PTA meetings. She’d just get a ride with our neighbor Mrs. Hincks. And, the money you pay for me to go to a private school. Why don’t I just go to some state school? It wouldn’t cost as much. That extra money could get donated to some kid who can’t afford to go to college because he has to take care of his family. And since he is Black,

he can’t get the help you got. 

This is how you raised me, Dad. You wanted me to help out people who needed help. You helped me meet the Blacks and the Chinese and the Native Americans living in Berkeley who needed assistance. We went to their churches, and joined them in all those potlucks. You told me it was my job to find ways to help them. That’s what I am working toward a degree in community organizing at the University of the Pacific. I want to help those who do not have the same privileges I have.. You know that.

I always remember the Bible story about the bread and the fish. Jesus came upon this wedding reception and there wasn’t enough food to go around. And Jesus told the people that it was all right. God would provide. The bread and the fish kept multiplying. Everybody was fed. At least, that’s how I remember that story. 

Anyway, the moral was that if you trust in God, you will never run out of bread and fish. All you need to do is give away your extra stuff, like that second car, and God will supply all that’s needed. So, until we share our excess, God can’t give us more. But when we do, then there will be enough for everybody. That’s how I remember that parable.

We’ve all got to make things fairer for everyone in this country. That’s what Dr. King says. And, our family can do more for justice than we’re doing now!

I don’t want you to be angry, Dad. I love you. I am so grateful for all you did for me as I was growing up. I know you sacrificed for me and our family. But, isn’t it time for us to make sacrifices for all those other poor people, like you’ve always told me? 

I remember those three moths vividly. My heart and soul were engaged then. Unfortunately, nothing changed much after that. King, too much of a threat to the White establishment, was murdered two years later. I was sidetracked into a career in special education and reading. My father cut off all the money he was spending on my college education. I moved back home, paid my own tuition and day-to-day expenses.

And now, this past summer the grandchildren of the folk I marched with, formed a vocal “Black Lives Matter” Movement. Having watched that peaceful, but insistent campaign, I wonder about how successful it might be. The far right extremists, maybe including the little boy who was groomed to hate by spitting on me, have answered their call, yet again. And the wall they must breach, the trust of people with such different backgrounds, the sacrifices that must be made by those with privilege, can this movement end differently than the one where I poured out my own passion? I pray it can.

February 11, 2021 08:34

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1 comment

Maxine Gordon
23:36 Feb 16, 2021

Thank you Ann for sharing such a personal and important and moving story of your life 'back then'. What a honor to have actually met Dr. King....to be a personal part of his amazing work . Proud to call you friend.


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