Civil Rights Events 1955 to 1968
I am about to embark on a series of posts that will convey information about important racial clashes in our country’s recent past, events that illustrate simultaneously pernicious racism and manifest progress toward the seemingly ephemeral goal of achieving racial equality. Why? Because I am a white man who lived during this time period, who feels the guilt of my race’s inhumanity, who since adulthood has been an active student of our nation’s past, who for 32 years was a public school instructor, who as a novelist recognizes that drama can be a useful tool to achieve beneficial purposes.
I had just turned 21 in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered in
. I had finished my junior year at UCLA, on my
way to earning a bachelor’s degree in history.
I had begun reading Bruce Catton’s remarkable series about the battles
of the Army of the Mississippi Potomac. My interest in the Civil War whetted, I would
over the next ten years read many books that informed me of the cruelties
inflicted personally and institutionally upon the African race.
I do not recall being aware of Emmett Till’s murder at that time, but I was indeed cognizant of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama and the names Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Then came the raucous in Little Rock, Arkansas, the images of an isolated black girl walking toward the entrance of a previous all-white high school as adult whites – mothers included – flanked her, gesticulating, faces emitting hate.
I had had two open-minded, kind-hearted parents to influence me during my formative years. Although we had lived in a town outside
Nashville, Tennessee, for two years – I was 9 when we left for – we never
did live in close proximity to African Americans. I do not recall having black classmates in my
elementary and secondary school grades.
My parents never succumbed to the white cultural attitude that blacks
were inferior and a personal or economic threat. My mother became a member and, for one term,
the president of the Pasadena Interracial Club.
One evening a man came to our front door in California . My father, a proof reader for a Pasadena, California newspaper,
answered the knock. A neighbor presented
him a petition he wanted signed – a declaration that blacks should not be
permitted to reside in our neighborhood.
My father refused to oblige. His
action is one of my fondest memories of my parents. Los Angeles
I lived in a low-rent dormitory of sorts my graduate year at UCLA. Our large room accommodated six people. One of them was a six foot five or six inch ex-navy black man named Bill. We struck up a somewhat restrained white/black friendship. We spent most of our time together in the confines of our room. He was athletic. He had tried out for Johnny Wooden’s varsity basketball team and had been cut – no criticism of his ability; he was good. We played a recreational game once against some other UCLA recreational team. I recall how out-of-my-league I felt. Bill scored almost all of our team’s points. As the year progressed, I developed the impression that he wanted to test my apparent indifference that he was black. He asked me once to shave his armpits. I declined. (I wonder still what he had concluded) The ending semester of my graduate year I was student teaching an
history class (eleventh grade) in the nearest high school to the UCLA campus. The last day of the school year my supervising
teacher assigned me to conduct the class while she finished making out student
report cards. I invited Bill to speak to
the class about his racial experiences.
He did. The students – all of
them white -- listened raptly. He had
been looked at suspiciously by school personnel when he had entered the
building to come to my room. He left
elated. I was very pleased. I believe the experience expelled any doubt
he might have had about me racially. America
I taught one year in a combined junior and senior high school in northern
-- 1957 to 1958. It had a racially and
ethnically mixed student body: whites, blacks, many Latinos. It was a beneficial experience for me
perspective-wise. Student strengths, deficiencies,
challenges are universal. It was painful
to see eleventh grade students reading on the second and third grade reading
level and my being unable to do anything useful to rectify it. Los Angeles
I was teaching English to seventh graders in Orinda, California, when Southern lunch counters were being occupied by black college students like John Lewis and then to eight graders during the Freedom Rides and in 1963 during the Birmingham campaign in integrate department stores and then in 1964 when horrible murders were committed in Mississippi resulting from civil rights activists’ attempts to have African-Americans registered to vote. Then
followed by the march upon the
capitol. 1968 brought us Martin Luther
King Jr.’s assassination in Alabama Memphis and rioting
in major cities and the Algiers Motel incident in .
So much horror to witness on television, so much revulsion to read about! Detroit
One year during the 1970s I taught a one-quarter elective that covered all of these events. Another year I had two English classes read Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger. Over the years I had my gifted and talented English classes read Richard Wright’s Black Boy. The children of upper middle class, college educated white parents, my students needed exposure to what it had been like –as best as I could intimate – to be black in America.
I would like to do more intimating now. I wish I still had the reading material I had when I was teaching. Thankfully, I have the internet.