When I was first cutting my teeth in the newspaper business, my editors sent me out on “house ends,” visits to homes where I would interview families of interest because something very bad of interest had happened to them.
It was the late 1960s and many of these house ends were the result of the death of a young man in Vietnam, usually an Army or Marine Corps infantryman who had been drafted or given the choice between prison or the military by a judge. Most of these young men were African-Americans and virtually all were from poor families.
After a while, these visits took on a certain surreal sameness.
Although I once found myself in the horribly awkward position of having arrived before the uniformed bearer of the bad-news telegram, I always was welcomed into these humble homes. I always was treated with respect. These were good people and they knew that I would give their now departed son or brother a respectful sendoff in the next day’s newspaper.
The living rooms always were modest and always had a photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a place of honor, often the same color rotogravure portrait scissored from an old Sunday Philadelphia Bulletin magazine.
I have no idea how many times I sat on a lumpy couch, ballpoint pen and spiral-bound A6 reporter’s notebook in one hand, a snapshot of the victim in the other, with the wizened Dr. King looking down on me as I listened to the story of a young life snuffed out by a war that none of us understood, few supported and Dr. King adamantly opposed because he understood, as few others did, that there was a common link between the civil rights and peace movements.
I do know that too many of these young men perished because of a lethal one-two punch — their skin color and economic status. They were not white and did not have have college deferments, as did a Dick Cheney, or a daddy with friends in high places, as did a George W. Bush. Or a son of privilege eager to invent draft-deferring physical ailments like Donald Trump.
It was the spring of 1968 and I had taken a week off from the house-end grind to join college friends in Daytona Beach, Florida. Our sunburns had not yet turned to tans and we had barely finished the first of several cases of Old Milwaukee beer (with pull tops, a recent innovation) when President Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek another term. The Vietnam War had worn him down — and out.
And then four evenings later there was a commotion.
“They killed the nigger! The nigger’s dead!” cried a group of drunken college students from Tennessee as they danced and whooped in the parking lot of the motel adjacent to ours. “They killed the nigger!”
My Old Milwaukee high evaporated in a flash. We turned on the television. Dr. King had been gunned down at a Memphis motel. I wanted to hurt those students. I wanted to throw up.
We drove north the next morning. As we approached Washington, there were huge black clouds of smoke over the city. We overtook a convoy of troop carriers filled with National Guardsmen, rifles slung over their shoulders. The riots following Dr. King’s murder were well underway, and the New York Avenue corridor of tenements, flophouses, liquor stores and churches in Northwest Washington was in flames.
The rioting spread, and the next night. I was again in newspaper reporter’s mufti and took my Daytona tan down to The Valley, a poor neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware where young blacks were skirmishing with the city police and National Guard. There were fires and intermittent gunfire from snipers atop the row houses. At one point a bullet whizzed over my head. Yes, just like in the movies.
I was still shaking when I got back to my apartment the next morning. I cried over the inhumanity of my fellow man, for my black friends and for Dr. King.
My tears came honestly.
My mother’s father was a German Jewish immigrant who worked tirelessly for civil rights and went out of his way to hire blacks at his department store for jobs that did not involve dustpans and mops. He took his oath of citizenship so seriously that he paid a printer to publish a pocket-sized booklet with the Bill of Rights, an American flag on the cover, which he distributed to high school civics classes.
My parents took up the civil-rights mantle, and to use the parlance of the time, some of their best friends were Negroes. My father was the campaign manager for the first black elected to the local school board. That and my parents’ habit of inviting black friends to swim in our backyard pool alienated them from some of their white “friends;” one neighbor forbade her children from playing with my brother and sister and I.
We went on bus trips to Washington for the big civil rights and antiwar protest marches. My father, never a religious man, found the experience of bearing witness on the Mall with several hundred thousand other people to be deeply spiritual.
Like me, they were heartened by the sea change in civil rights in the 1960s and 70s that Dr. King and his acolytes worked for so tirelessly. But they believed until the day they drew their last breaths that America remained a deeply racist society, perhaps just not as overtly so, and that much work remained to be done.
If Dr. King were to look beyond the grave today he surely would be bitterly disappointed. Although he would be cheered by the advances in civil rights, and there have been many, he certainly would wonder if the progress he and his brothers and sisters bled and gave their lives for is being reversed even after eight years of an African-American president.
One bright spot — and there are too few — is the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a logical contemporary successor to Dr. King’s crusade. It is fair to say that a Chicago police officer would not be charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald, as well as the resolution of other high-profile cases where there has been a semblance of justice — even if it has been justice delayed — without the consciousness raising of the movement.
Barack Obama has pretty much avoided addressing racism head on during his presidency, and that’s okay with me. The lives of black Americans have improved during his two terms because of his trademark quiet determination, not fire and brimstone, while I find offensive the notion that just because he’s black things would or should automatically be better. It’s going to take a lot more than eight years to undo hundreds of years of racism.
That racism is so deeply rooted in our culture that beasts like President-Elect Trump, who received endorsements from white supremacist groups, and that was just fine with him, have put down their dog whistles with relative impunity and delivered blatantly anti-minority messages. In fact, one of the greatest lessons not learned in the 2016 campaign by that feckless news media was that while it would treat Trump’s outrageous behavior as disqualifying, his supporters believed otherwise. This is not to say that many of these supporters voted for The Donald although he was a bigot and racist, which is another post-election media delusionment. They voted for him precisely because he was.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become America’s biggest hate group with the first black president its chief target. Which begs a question: Is it Obama’s fault that the U.S. is not more openly intolerant? Of course not. Many Americans, and were not just talking garden-variety racists here, were not ready for a transformational leader like Dr. King, let alone a transformational president.
Republicans represent the They’re Agin’ Us view when they claim that if Dr. King were alive today, he would be “appalled” by the Black Lives Matter movement’s focus on the skin color of the people who are disproportionately killed in encounters with the police.
Besides being patently false, this argument betrays an indifference to black suffering and an ignorance of the history the civil rights movement, which from its infancy focused on bringing an end to violence against African-Americans. Lest we forget, as so many people conveniently have, Dr. King’s goal was to force the White House and Congress to confront the fact that African-Americans were being killed with impunity for “offenses” like trying to vote and for equal protection under the law.
The views of Republicans, beginning with but not confined to Trump, are pathetic in historic and contemporary contexts, but then they are merely standing at a figurative schoolhouse door like George Wallace did.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on January 15, 2016, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.