The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

28 August 2003

The dream, plus forty

I wasn't there when Dr King said he'd been to the mountaintop. And maybe that's just as well, since a sorta-white kid on the cusp of ten with barely a clue about what life was about would have just gotten in the way.

As the parental units started to pay out my leash, I started to notice things. And the explanations never quite sufficed. Why was my water fountain right there in the center and their water fountain over to the side? It's the same water, isn't it? "It's just the way it is." How come I always get a seat near the front of the bus? "It's just the way it is." And maybe it was, but it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Then I was dispatched to this fancy-schmancy preparatory school, where the curriculum was eccentric but difficult, the surroundings were right out of a copy of Southern Living, and the headmistress was distressed at the sort of goings-on that had taken place in Washington in the summer of '63. "They won't make me integrate," she thundered. I knew the word, at least in its general form, but it took a while for me to connect it up to the fountains and the bus and the fact that every one of my classmates had always been white.

The, um, segregation academy ran up to grade eight; for the four years following, I would be in Charleston's Catholic high school. Or, more precisely, one of Charleston's two Catholic high schools; the way it was hadn't changed.

But the status quo had just about run its course. Quietly, with little notice, the diocese announced a change in student assignments: in future, all ninth-graders would be assigned to what was now called the Annex, and all the higher grades would meet at the main campus. There was some wailing, some gnashing of teeth, but the world didn't come to an end.

And up to this point, I had thought that members of the clergy had taken a vow of indifference to all things political. In the spring of 1969, an incident at the Medical College of South Carolina proved otherwise. The doctors and the medical students were all white; there were black nursing assistants and LPNs, but most of the black faces belonged to support staff. Tensions were high and growing higher; twelve black workers were sacked for trying to unionize the support staff, and finally all the support staff walked off the job.

That was the 19th of March. On the 31st, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy preached to a crowd of 1500 downtown. He would return in April to organize a march; Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King would be there too. Governor McNair mobilized the National Guard and set a 9 pm to 5 am curfew. The picket lines kept growing, and if you looked carefully, you'd see the occasional priest, even a nun or two.

Came the 11th of May. Mother's Day. Five thousand people, including much of our faculty and five members of Congress, joined the march. The state would not be moved. It would be late June before the University gave in on most of the workers' demands. And about this time, I left Charleston; the family moved to Oklahoma, and I went off to school in Texas.

So I missed most of the unwinding of this particular story, but the details stuck with me, and as the years passed, I felt growing revulsion for the way it was, and for myself for not doing enough to stop it. I still kick myself now and then for trying to stay out of the line of fire. Okay, I was a sorta-white kid on the cusp of sixteen with barely a clue about what life was about, and I probably would have just gotten in the way, but I made a promise to myself, a promise which proved difficult to keep but which would always remain in the back of my mind: Never again will I try to defend something, or try to overlook something, that is just plain damned wrong.

And in the Eighties, courtesy of some historical documentary, I got to hear Dr King's speech in full. To this day, it gives me goosebumps. I hope it always will.

Posted at 12:30 PM to Almost Yogurt


TrackBack: 9:07 AM, 29 August 2003
» Remebering a Great Man and changing times from Tiger: Raggin' & Rantin'
I had really wanted to post something about Dr. Martin Luther King yesterday, it being the 40th anniversary of his famous "I have a Dream" speech, but was distracted. CG Hill was not so distracted and gives us his glimpse......[read more]