I was 9 years old when The Right Hon. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
My parents were long-time supporters of Civil Rights and, particularly, the use of non-violent civil disobedience to attain the right to self-determination, from the time Mohandas K. Gandhi (the "Mahatma," or "Great Soul") used the tactic to persuade the United Kingdom to let it be independent after World War II, through the "Freedom Riders" of the late 1950s and early 1960s, to the Sanitation Workers' Strike and Lunch Counter sit-ins of King's protesting the Jim Crow laws that allowed the defeated states that rose up against the government in a treasonous act called the Civil War in an attempt to preserve slavery to perpetuate our own Apartheid, relegating African-American citizens of those states to separate "but equal (hardly)" education, employment, housing, services, and even restaurants, hotels, and public spaces and water fountains.
At a time when the majority of African-Americans were descendants from slaves, who had been brought to America and bred in America against their will, not immigrating from Africa.
My mother was born in Harlem, in 1919. She explained to us once in a story about her childhood she didn't realize she wasn't black until a friend of hers pointed it out. My father was born in South Detroit in 1923. They both, separately, spent their youths in factories and working alongside African Americans and other immigrants and minorities, in conditions which led them both, separately, to help organize unions--particularly, the IBEW and UAW, and the ILGWU--with their fellow workers. My father hunted U-boats and protected convoys from them on the Destroyer Escort USS Lowe (DE-325) on "The Milk Run" from Charleston, S.C. to North Africa. My mother, at the same time, even though they married in late 1941, was a riveter of Corsairs, aircraft preferred by the U.S. Navy for carrier-based missions.
They both had friends who fought to keep Spain a Republic against a Fascist dictator and ally of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and lost, in 1939.
And the both always loved Billie Holiday, the Lindy Hop, Paul Robeson's booming voice, and the message of oppressed peoples everywhere of resistance, endurance, and hope. Thanks to the GI Bill, both of my parents elevated themselves out of factory work to become distinguished professors of Anthropology, and South Asian and particularly Tibetan studies specialists.
In many ways, the anthem chosen by Civil Rights marchers--including the white priest Father James Grappi of Milwaukee, and others--"We Shall Overcome"--was their anthem as well.
So, when I, like others watching television when CBS News broke in with a "Special Report" in that pivotal year of 1968, and learned Dr. King had been assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, I was as shocked and dumbfounded as when I witnessed from my apartment across the river the attacks on the Twin Towers.
I was stunned that such a strong moral figure, with his "moral suagion" of righteousness, and persistent turning of the other cheek, and ability to amass large peaceful protests that endured the intimidation of jail, water cannons, dogs, beatings, midnight home invasions, lynchings and bombings of churches, had been stopped so quickly, so easily, by an assassin's bullet.
As had President John F. Kennedy, the hope of my parents' WWII generation for a better, more compassionate America following the political persecution and witch hunt of "liberals" and "Communists" championed and participated in by his rival, the former California Governor, Senator and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
The assassination of the then-young, nearly contemporary in age WWII veteran president was devastating to my parents. My father fought in WWII to fight Fascists and Fascism, and my mother had riveted aircraft and endured sexual harassment for the same purpose, though she hated war for any reason as it always seemed to her to attract a nation's best and brightest only to have them die far from home.
The assassination of Dr. King just five years later reminded them there were large segments of the population of the United States opposed to the idea of blacks having equal Civil Rights, integration of schools (begun under Dwight Eisenhower) and of the military, the right to vote and to no longer tolerate being treated as "second-class" citizens of the world's shining beacon of Democracy.
Naturally, as a not-yet-teenager, I was into my own fantasies while playing outside with friends--and even concluded I could investigate the "real" assassin of Dr. King based on "clues" that consisted of broken Christmas tree light bulbs in my neighborhood. The "investigation" led to one of my early adventures, resulting in my being rescued with a friend by a helicopter.
But that's just to indicate what Dr. King and his death meant to me, and my family.
At my church today, in fact, which remains mostly white, I was moved to tears singing "We Shall Overcome," because I know what that song, and its words, meant to my parents, and me.
I cannot describe how impressed I was with my country--which generations of my father's family helped found, from the time an ancestor allegedly bought land directly from William Penn, and something like six served in Gen. Washington's Army in the Revolutionary War--having elected an African-American, Barack Obama, as president. I truly, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, never expected to see it in my lifetime.
I had mistakenly thought that, more likely, Americans would vote a woman to become president--since every other Democracy in the world, following our example, had elected a woman leader, from Jarwaharlal Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi to Golda Meyer in Israel and even, though it is not a "true" democracy, the U.K. electing "the Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher.
I did not believe voters, citizens, participants in the country's elections, had gotten over racism and bigotry enough, whether economic or political, to elect an African-American as a President.
It, truly, restored my childhood belief that "anyone" could become president.
You may recall that, during Hillary Clinton's first campaign for the presidency, in 2008, the media (of which I was a working member) automatically declared her, because of her last name, as the "frontrunner," and the GOP operatives immediately began showing up at rallies with signs telling her to "Iron My Shirts," which, beyond being insulting, made absolutely no sense unless they'd grown up with mothers who never told them, as mine told me, "Iron your own damn shirt!"
I never expected Obama to defeat her in the primaries.
But that's, again, another story.
What is prompting me to write this column right now is, besides the hymn bringing back memories, and my recollections of the 1960s struggle for recognition and justice for African Americans (and women, and all minorities), the current oval office resident's two actions on Friday.
The President of the United States signed a proclamation Friday declaring Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as every president has done since Ronald Reagan made it a federal holiday in 1983. But on the same day, President Trump declared in a meeting that he didn't want immigrants coming from "Shithole" countries.
And I was also immediately reminded of an assignment I had as a reporter for the Hilton Head Island, S.C. Island Packet.
My assignment, roughly in 1991 as I recall, was to call some South Carolina notables and ask their opinion on the bill being discussed to make MLK Day a holiday recognized by the state. Note the location and the year: eight years after President Reagan's declaring Dr. King's birthday, Jan. 15, a national holiday.
And I recall, particularly, the response from Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, who had been an Associate to the Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and Associate Director Clyde Tolson, and oversaw the King assassination investigation.
"No, you don't think it should be a holiday?"
"No. I don't think it should be a holiday."
"Because Martin Luther King was a Communist."
And therein lied the sole point of his argument.
I doubt, and cannot even conceive, of a Southern Baptist minister, who frequently called upon God and Christians to extend compassion to their fellow humans, being a "Communist," either in Marx and Engels' mold or Stalin's.
But there I had it. It wasn't because he was "black."
Just as President Trump continues to insist that he wasn't being "racist," he was using a colorful term to describe from where immigrants, in his mind, come. As opposed to Norway.
And why would people from such countries come here? Why did the Irish come, the Czechs, the Poles, Lebanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Domincans, Hatians and others come here? Because this has always been advertised as the "land of opportunity."
It wasn't Capitalism that Dr. King found fault with. It was the paying lipservice to the concepts of Democracy--"all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."
And Dr. King came from a shithole part of this country.
I saw people living in poverty in South Carolina, in the 1990s, as bad as I'd seen in the streets of New Delhi or the slums of Mumbai and the "black hole" of Kolkata in the 1980s. with no plumbing, no running water, no electricity except perhaps for a bare bulb hanging from a wire. I saw people taxed off their inherited land as developers sought to build wealth-making resorts and golf courses, like the current President, next to land that had been purchased from "carpet baggers" by freed slaves and passed down for generations. Or that had been worked as share croppers for white landlords, with shacks on them in various states of disrepair due to economic circumstances or even a lack of adequate education, within view of beautiful, moss dripping oak surrounded "Southern Mansions."
I saw apartment buildings in Savannah, Ga., for "low income residents," with no airconditioning--just as I had in Dallas and other parts of Texas in the decade before.
I saw African-American hotel workers bused onto Hilton Head to work in resorts, called "Plantations," that were gated communities where they could never hope to live, from neighboring counties.
Under John F. Kennedy, with Sergeant Shriver's prompting and eventual administering, the Peace Corps was born as a service the United States would use to both educate U.S. citizens about other parts of the world, and educate residents in other parts of the world about the U.S. And Vista, created in 1965, and now part of AmericaCorps., was designed to help American citizens find their way out of their "shitholes" to the opportunity promised by the founding fathers.
If I were in Congress, besides decrying the president's remarks about other countries, like Africa (which isn't a country, but an entire continent, unless he was talking about South Africa), I'd also take him to see the shitholes that remain on our soil.
Like any reservation where the original inhabitants of this land have been pushed onto to be forgotten about and die.
(Full disclosure, both my siblings--my older sister, Karla, and my older brother, Erik--were native Americans adopted before I was born).