Forty years ago at around this time, I was a senior at a Detroit high school avidly following a presidential race which bears more than a few similarities to the one going on right now. There was a divisive war and a charismatic Democratic candidate--Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose powerful second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary on March 12 was what helped convince the weary incumbent president Lyndon Baines Johnson to drop out of the running. Then, a few days later, Robert F. Kennedy jumped into the contest and the Democrats became a party divided against themselves.
And, as now, race was an issue. The previous summer, I had stood on my quiet block in northwestern Detroit listening to machine-gun fire and seeing smoke coming from downtown during riots which cost the lives of over 40 people, most of them black. The same thing had happened all over the country--in Newark, Watts, Harlem, Cleveland. House after house in Detroit went up for sale and white people headed for the suburbs.
Then, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and it seemed that the world was truly spinning out of control (and by the time RFK was killed two months later, most of us were numb). Afraid of more racial violence, my high school simply let all of its (mostly white) student body out and told them to go home. I remember wandering the streets, trying to catch a bus, seeing the fear on people's faces (black and white) as they hurried down the streets.
A lot has changed since then. MLK Day is a national holiday and the fact that we have a serious black candidate for president is heartening. Unpleasant as the fighting between Hillary and Obama is as to who is the strongest supporter of civil rights (and believe me, even as they march together in an MLK Day parade today, their battle goes on, underground), there is hope of racial equality in America today, much more so than when machine-guns chattered in our cities and fires gutted the home of civilians, black and white....
Monday, January 21, 2008
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