Skip to content

Summer of 1963

September 30, 2013


I graduated from high school in Oakland, California on the day Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. I was 17 that summer. I got along with black people, didn’t feel superior to them but had no close black friends and no special insight or sensitivity to the challenges they faced. I was from a blue-collar, white working class family but I was quiet, bookish, serious-minded, and introverted. I was programmed to go to college and get a better job than my shop-electrician father. I was taught to keep my nose clean and to the grindstone, keep my head down and don’t attract attention to myself. I was dutiful and aversive to loud, boisterous, rebellious, rowdy peers of either race.

A somber, serious-minded black friend named George, whom I deeply respected and felt an affinity for, later told me, “You know, Medgar Evers was a cousin of mine.” He later became Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party and still later a preacher at an East Oakland church. That summer of 1963 was the beginning of dramatic education in racial, social, and political reality: fire hoses, police dogs, and electric cattle prods (forerunners of today’s tasers) used in Birmingham, Alabama against nonviolent protesters for the crime of daring to attempt to register to vote. White southern officials declaring even the NAACP, (which had opposed direct action by SNCC and CORE such as sit-ins, civil disobedience, demonstrations and marches) as “terrorist and subversive organization” needing to be confronted with military tanks (symbolically painted white) and militarized police forces armed with automatic weapons. Anyone who opposed the status quo was suspected of being a “communist,” the equivalent of being labeled a “terrorist” today. Billboards lined the south, showing “Martin Luther King at a Communist Training School” which was actually Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a nonviolent community organizing center created by the unsung hero Miles Horton. The photo also showed Aubrey Williams, FDR’s National Youth Administration director, seated near King; another supposed “bomb-throwing Bolshevik, threatening to destroy America.

The murder of Medgar Evers. Bull Conner and fire hoses in Birmingham. The March on Washington. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 19 days later, killing Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, all under the age of 15. (You really should see Spike Lee’s film “Four Little Girls,” available on Netflix). It was one shocking, challenging outrage after another. One black spokesman after another reminded us all, “If you know this is wrong your must speak up. You have a duty to stand up and be counted. It means nothing to say you believe something if that belief has no consequence on your overt behavior.” These words hit home to me.

I started to notice when “well-meaning” white people would say things to black acquaintances like “It’s terrible the way you people are being treated down South. Bet you’re glad to be living here in California where there is no prejudice or discrimination.”

I remembered how stag dances were suddenly banned at Casltemont High School n my junior year for no announced reason. Other students told me there had been a fight at a recent dance, along racial lines. In Oakland in 1962-63 there was no overt interracial dating and interracial dancing was exceptional. White students tended to congregate on one side of the dance floor, black students on the other. In my senior year I heard that school administrators would call the parents of white girls tow warm them their daughters were seen keeping company with black youth

In retrospect, race was like sex—a taboo topic that the older (white) generation absolutely refused to talk about. Only two teachers, both Jewish, actually invited students to talk openly about racial tensions at the school, and didn’t flinch at the whirlwind they’d invited. I remember them warmly. So many others were determined to sweep everything under the rug….I remembered hearing, years earlier, of a realtor neighbor telling my parents he felt kind of guilty. He really hated to refuse to sell a house on our block to a perfectly respectable, decent, likeable young black couple because he just couldn’t do that to his (white) neighbors—stick them with a black family moving in next door, lowering their property values. It’s not that he had anything against “colored people,” it’s just the matter of property values, you understand.

I began to understand that racism in Oakland was different from racism in Mississippi or Alabama. After all, black people could register to vote in Oakland without risking their lives. Racism in the north spoke a different, much more elusive language. I started to understand how much racism was unconscious. I was raised among the Northern “yes but” white people, who didn’t’ see themselves as racist at all. If you had confronted those people by saying “Aren’t we all God’s children?” or “Isn’t’ it a basic principle of Americanism that everyone is free and equal without regard to race, creed, color, religion, or national origin?” such people would readily assent. “That’s right! Absolutely!” they would say. “That’s what America is all about…but I don’t see why….” And you’d be off to the races. They’d be al in favor of equality–but opposed to any action to bring it about. They were all in favor of integration—-some other time, some other place, some other neighborhood. I got used to hearing white people say, “I’m not prejudiced but….”

[To be continued]


Top of Form

Bottom of Form


One Comment leave one →
  1. donegaldescendant permalink*
    September 30, 2013 5:05 AM

    This was originally posted on Open Salon on the occasion of the 50th anniversay of the March on Washington.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: