My Remembrances of Martin Luther King Era in the United States – by Rusty Walker

I wish to commemorate Martin Luther King Day by some background that relates to all nations and their oppressed minorities, and then relating a few personal stories.

Martin Luther King (MLK) was supported by a wide spectrum of Americans: Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, and others, both the religious and non-religious. This was due to his ability to present a genuine sense of unity, in the midst of white/ black enmity and resentment that often defined social society in the 1950s-1960s. Martin Luther King emerged as an unexpected peaceful presence amidst the confrontational environment of the white Southern racists and their state governors who resisted the congressional mandates for integration of the Negro into the white world – buses (Negroes had to ride in the back), schools, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, indeed, neighborhoods and cities were segregated prior to the Martin Luther King era. The worst symbol of white hatred, the Klu Klux Klan, with its murderous threats and hangings, burning of black churches, murdering civil rights leaders, juxtaposed the Black rage from confrontational Malcolm X, and the militancy of the Black Panthers. Out of this murderous hostility and conflict came a calm, eloquent, black preacher who became a universal symbol of peaceful co-existence and hope, amidst the changing tide of American white and black public’s increasing intolerance of segregation.

I dearly wish Martin Luther King could have survived to witness the election of the first Black American president, Barak Obama – the first “Black” in the “White” House MLK might have said. (Of course, the first Black in the White House was by the invitation of Theodore Roosevelt to the Great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass for dinner; Douglass, who was born in a slave cabin, became the great orator and social reformer, dined at the White House-another landmark in American History). I am not a Democrat, though Obama is. I did not vote for Barak Obama, nevertheless, I see his presidency as a landmark and a point of pride that I celebrated at the time of his election then and now. So, regardless of political affinities, some differing principles, and different notions of what economic progress looks like, all American’s should understand we prevailed in Civil Rights. I can confirm having lived through it, there has been a gradual civil rights progress in this country, and young Americans who have not experienced the changes, sometimes miss this lesson of history. Progress as a country, in equitable living, wages and hiring practices, the protections afforded minorities in this nation of the U.S. supported by law of the land are significant compared to many other countries. The progress was built on the blood and relentless conviction of heroes of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King being one of these heroes. In Obama’s election, as a people, if not person-by-petty person, each of us with our infantile jealousies and prevailing prejudices we sometimes unknowingly harbor, should credit as a nation, the great progress in the United States in defense of those that could not defend themselves; the defense of the minorities.

This progress I witnessed over the 1950s as I lived in the South. The first I remember, even at my tender age of eight, was in 1954 when Brown vs Board of Education in the Supreme Court; it was struck down and exposed the institutionalized argument of “separate but equal” as being a myth. The court stated: “To separate black children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way never to be undone . . . We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  What a heart-felt statement that is coming from the cold, logical halls of justice.  The second remembrance of mine might have been the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama black community bus boycott that lasted for more than a year. The brave NAACP Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat at the front to a white passenger. The seat she took was not in the back of the bus, the “colored section.” Martin Luther King was instrumental in this event leading to a boycott lasting until buses were desegregated a year later. This was the first I had heard of Martin Luther King.

In this same year, as innocent pre-teen white boys we were unknowingly living in segregated Texas.  I always wondered why the black kids always seem to play baseball in areas where we didn’t live. My brother Dan and I had stark remembrance of the curious and inexplicable “Colored Entrance,” signs, “Whites Only” signs, throughout our small community. It wasn’t like that on the Air Base where my Dad worked as a Physiological Training Instructor for pilots. We witnessed these strange curiosities because we lived off base. For example, Dan and I noticed in the movie theater, the “negroes” got to sit in the balcony. We thought, “Why do they get to have the best seats? How unfair!” As children, living in a non-prejudiced family, our innocent minds could not comprehend that they had to sit there- they had no choice and couldn’t sit on the main floor with us. Attending a rock and roll concert in 1957, there was nearly a riot when the black kids sitting on one side and us, the whites, on the other, started dancing and began to mingle, as it really seemed quite natural. The authorities, police and bouncers waded into the crowd, and began assaulting various blacks and whites, trying to separate us. The performer was Little Richard. He caused quite a stir.

My brother Dan and I during this time had become accustomed to our black maid that was always present when our parents were out. Were he here today (Dan and his daughter Kara were murdered, shot down, in 2000 by her jealous boyfriend- Indeed, I too know what being  victim is like), Dan would agree as I remember him often saying, we were practically raised by “Ruth” our black maid. We loved her, and respected her. We also could fear her if we misbehaved. We never would have faulted her for using the switch hung on the back door, as we had it coming. But, alas, she never used it; the threat of it was enough. So, we behaved. My parents treated her like part of the family, and so did we. We looked up to her- so counterintuitive for the times.

In 1957 Little Rock, Arkansas, that bordered our state of Texas, there was an all-white Central High School that tried to integrate. However, nine black students were blocked from entering the school on the orders of the Governor Orval Faubus! I remember the reaction of my parents was disbelief in this shameful behavior of an American governor; much later, Governor Wallace of Alabama made a spectacle of himself, as well.  President Eisenhower, a hero to my Dad and the nation in since WWII, ended up sending federal troops to intervene on behalf of the students. We began hearing Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham. We didn’t yet know if he was a violent person who hated ‘the whitey” or not, at this point. He wrote the seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” arguing that individuals had a moral duty to disobey unjust laws. I remember my Dad having some trouble understanding this concept, having served without question in the military, and was a military police directly assigned to General MacArthur in the Pacific Theater WWII, following him MacArthur to Australia-New Guinea-all the way to the Philippines. A “moral duty to disobey unjust laws,” “Well,” Dad would say, “I guess if they are ‘unjust,’ why were they laws in the first place?” In those days of Korea and later Viet Nam the prevailing sentiment was “My flag and country first.” One didn’t question so much as we do today. One didn’t think laws would be unjust. MLK was teaching us something Americans had to learn. That might, wasn’t always right; that there could be a tyranny of the majority; we could be patriots, and still admit we weren’t always right. That was not the way it was in the 1950s and 60s Cold War mentality.

In 1959, Dad was stationed in Okinawa and our family went with him. Once again we were experiencing something unique for the times: a fully integrated setting. Blacks and whites were to work together in harmony, or face a court-martial- and work together productively, they did.  It was the military experiences of black soldiers in World War II that may have established historical momentum for civil rights legislation along with the subsequent black migration to northern cities after the war. The military was a model of successful integration before American civilian society.

At the time, I was a high school teenager, at 15 and 16. The young, black servicemen in Okinawa, at the base gym where I was all summer, and every weekend, took me under their wing. That is, 19-23 year old Southern Negro Airmen, befriended this little white kid. I obviously respected and admired them, and their brave boxing skills, so, they decided to train me. They invited me to run with them, I declined only because I couldn’t keep up. There was no hint of prejudice, even when after a workout, they would hang out in the gym telling stories, and  I joined them, mostly listening, to the tales of Asian whores in the village of Koza, and white Marines that they encountered that yelled out, “the “Magic word.” I was young, but I knew what that word was and it started with an “N.”  I laughed right alongside of them as they told of being attacked by white Marines that didn’t know they were boxers; and one of them, my favorite boxer, Smokey, picking up a garbage lid and beating one marine down with it. Once with this group, I told the only joke I knew, which had “negro” in it. I will never forget the patience shown me by eight black boxers around me- just staring at me; Smokey said, “Call‘m colored.” I said, “Okay.” And, the silence gave way to jovial talking again.

I remember their surprised joy at discovering that I knew all the black musicians that they liked on radio. They’d say, “Sam Cooke? How’d you know Sam Cooke?” I came back with, “I like that song, “You Send Me,” and they would laugh in disbelief. Then, I’d, say “I also like Ray Charles!’ And, they would laugh out of surprise and say, “How d’you know Ray Charles music!?” At that time, you didn’t get all the black music on white radio. You had to look for it. These were Southern blacks from Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, all recruited by the top brass, specifically sent to Okinawa in a friendly-but-real rivalry, between generals and the different forces, to beat the Marines, and the unbeatable Airborne in boxing matches held at Camp Sukran. I remember running up to my middleweight friend, “Smokey” after he knocked out his opponent; Smokey was a boxer with the moves of Sugar Ray Robinson. He was surrounded by black friends, all lined up with their backs against the ring, and they menacingly yelled out at me as I approached; I was unaware of the danger. I was, in fact, looking at Smokey and smiling and mimicking in shadow boxing in the air how he knocked out his opponent, with delight over Smokey’s big KO, when they shouted out at me; “Who the Hell is that!?” Smokey just said, “He’s okay. He’s my friend.” And, they all relaxed.

In 1962 the family returned “Stateside,” for six months to Sumter, South Carolina, the heart of segregation country. We were there for Dad’s final Air Force assignment as Dad retired after 20 years from the military. Mom was an Australia-War bride, so, Dad was to later take us to Australia, her homeland, to live, and I went to college, and Dan worked in a photography lab. But, in 1962 Carolinas, we experienced raw hatred of Negroes. “Colored only” restrooms, “Whites only,” signs everywhere. When we passed a black funeral, half the school bus ran to the side yelling out, “One less Nigger!” This was more than a shock to me, having beloved friends I had just left in Okinawa, older, black athletes that I admired befriend me, and we liked the same music, and here my local white friend made me cross the street, “Why,” I asked, “Hey, bo! You don’t wanna to walk by that ol’ Nigra woman do ya?” [“Bo,” was Southern drawl for boy]; I looked up and sure enough, here was a dignified older black lady coming our way. It was during a softball practice in the high school Physical Education class that really made me realize at 16, I didn’t like these white people at all in the South. A bunch of the boys in the game all ran to the back fence to harass the “negroes” who walked by – the teacher didn’t say a word; silence can say a lot. Silence can be deafening.

We moved to Australia, and saw no prejudice, as they were progressively phasing (1949-1973) the 1901 Australian White Policy out in stages to be dismantled the year I graduated from college in 1966. They were also integrating the native Aborigines into society.

It was in August 28, 1963, that I learned, as many of us did, that Martin Luther King was no ordinary activist. A 200,000 people march on Washington D.C.. all congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, where Americans heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech; a speech that galvanized many white, brown and black Americans to join a peaceful but resilient fight for Civil Rights in the United States. I cannot hear that speech even today without weeping. It was during this era, the inspiring Martin Luther King era, that many presidential and congressional initiatives moved the U.S. government towards many important Civil Rights Acts.

I was in my painting class when the Headmaster of the college came in and told me personally, as an American, I might want to know he was “sorry and upset for me, that this November 22, 1963 day, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” I was stunned; truly sad and silenced; everyone in the US will tell you they know where they were when they heard this news. Kennedy actually failed to suggest any new civil rights proposals in 1961 or 1962, for political reasons. He needed southern support in Congress for his other foreign and domestic programs. At this time it was still risky to introduce civil rights legislation in the Senate. Kennedy’s popularity came more from his tough stance in foreign policy. Still, he was beloved as bringing some class, “Camelot,” into the White House.

The incoming president, Lyndon B.  Johnson was dedicated to civil rights as no other than perhaps the truculent, but brilliant, John Quincy Adams 1840s stance against slavery when in the House of Representatives (after his presidency), and, still at the top of the list, Lincoln himself. Many do not know that President Lyndon B.  Johnson, a Texan, was highly motivated to right the wrongs of the dismal civil rights history in the U.S. and make equality a reality.

On Jan. 23, 1964, the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, which originally had been instituted in 11 southern states after Reconstruction to make it difficult for poor blacks to vote. On July 2 1964, President Johnson signed the all-encompassing Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The law also provided the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation.

In the 1950s Malcolm X was a complex force to be reckoned with. His powerful personality and message ranged from radical advocacy for black supremacy in the 1950s to a more matured voice of reason in the 1960s, a more effective message of working with civil rights leaders and black self-determinism. In 1965, Malcolm X, the Black Nationalist and leader of the Organization of Afro-American Unity was shot and killed on Feb. 21 1965, Harlem, NY. It is believed the assailants were members of the Black Muslim faith, which Malcolm had recently abandoned for a more orthodox Islam.

But, in that same year, under President Johnson, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for Southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other such requirements that were used to restrict black voting are made illegal. President Johnson issued the Executive Order 11246 the following year, asserting that civil rights laws alone are not enough to remedy discrimination; this enforces “affirmative action” for the first time. It required government contractors to “take affirmative action” toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment, still a part of the U.S. system today. This important legislation at the time, is now being debated as having served its purpose, and possibly out-dated. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas voiced his concern in his autobiography, over the existence of “affirmative action” tends to cast unfair doubts over the ability of blacks to make it on their own.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s method of peaceful marching and pleas to common sense, can be contrasted to combative elements that arose in 1966 Oakland, California, as the militant Black Panthers were founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. When I visited Oakland and Berkeley, California in 1967, the Black Panthers were ubiquitous up and down University Avenue and all over Oakland. They were very hostile to whites. You did not ask them for the time of day, if you were white. I was instructed to call black people “Afro-American” at this point, referencing “colored,” would get a stare of mean intentions. The Black community was changing, and language meant lot about your standing on issues. “Black” was okay as a term, because of “Black Pride.” The following year Stokely Carmichael a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), coined the phrase “black power” in a speech in Seattle. He defined it as an assertion of “black pride” and “the coming together of black people to fight for their liberation by any means necessary.” The term’s “radicalism” alarms many who believe the civil rights movement’s effectiveness and moral authority crucially depend on nonviolent civil disobedience urged by MLK. The white community, if there was one, understood why the black community no longer trusted “Whitey.”

During this time, progress was made with the Supreme Court ruling that prohibiting interracial marriage as unconstitutional. Sixteen states that still banned interracial marriage at the time were forced to revise their laws. Just a casual walk though Oakland, or dining out, at that time, we all were aware of the predominance of interracial couples there.

By 1967 I was serving in the military, and Vietnam was raging, but, civil rights seemed destined to improve with MLK. My experiences and my friends in the barracks, and in the work place with Black service men were harmonious. I saw very little race issues. Things looked hopeful- then, out of nowhere, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, at age 39, was assassinated on the balcony outside his hotel room; James Earl Ray was convicted of the murder. The country was stunned, I was enraged; and there was a lot of guilt I think felt by white Americans…at least I would hope so.

Martin Luther King was dead, but, his motivating legacy lived on and progress continued, as President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. In 1971, the year I was discharged from the Air Force, the Supreme Court upheld busing as a legitimate means for public schools to integrate black children into white areas. Although largely unwelcome (and sometimes violently opposed) in local school districts, court-ordered busing plans continued until the late 1990s. Progress continues- but, rarely is a fight over in the first round, or the tenth, or twelfth; and another fight will always be around the corner.

So, today, having lived through those days, and the 1968 horror of assassination of such an inspirational example of a martyr for his cause, where are we now?

Today: there are protections for minorities; Blacks are no more “victims” in American society today, than any other person that is white, of color, or has a religious preference, or varying sexual orientation- because any of us will find ourselves victims at times of hate by petty people different from ourselves- but, prior to MLK, in the U.S. prejudice was institutionalized. So, celebrate our progress; and do not allow anyone to fool you into hanging on to the yoke of “victim.”

Why do I say, there are no more victims? Because any of us can befall victimization at any time, any place in the U.S. or abroad, but, we need not think of ourselves with the negative connotation of ‘victim.” This gets in the way of our self-identity; our self-esteem, and real freedom. When those different from us, that are filled with hatred would have us labeled, we lose if we accept the notion of “victim” from these self-appointed gatekeepers of their own self-generated righteousness. We are not victims, if we, as Martin Luther King has taught us, fight, though the odds are against us; fight to win in progressive stages; and accept that we must continue to sound the alarm nationally and abroad if necessary, knowing we are morally right, we win. Prejudice will always live in the minds of the ignorant. No one will eradicate ignorance, hatred and evil. But, we win if we recognize progress and recognize freedom when we see it; and do not accept lack of freedoms when we encounter it; we win if we never accept “victimization.”

As Martin Luther King said,
“…And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

How stirring!
Are we, at times, victims? Yes; Takfiri Deobandis are currently making the Shias victims of genocidal murder; Historically, Mao’s victimization of his own people, Stalin’s Gulags and starvation of the Ukraine’s became victims; Holocaust victims by the Germans in WWII, and victims of Rwanda, Darfur, and many other examples including Native Americans in America. The American slaves were certainly victims, as were the unprepared, uneducated and untrained freedmen, through the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow America, the clandestine sabotage of African Americans, and prior to the Civil Rights Acts being passed and acted upon by authorities; Blacks in the United States did not in fact have equal opportunities sufficiently protected by law. Yes, they were victims.

My caution is only against thinking of ourselves perpetually as victims. This can be counter-productive to a person of color or minorities in society. I believe that Martin Luther King would compel people of color, and all minorities today to shed the title of “victim” in a cautionary way, with dignity intact, allowing us, as he was, to remain self-possessed, motivated and focused in order to recognize and fight the ever-present would-be oppressors we meet in our everyday life.

Rusty Walker is an educator, author, political analyst, ex-military, from a military family, retired college professor, former Provost (Collins College, U.S.A.), artist, musician and family man. Rusty Walker is an ardent supporter of Pakistan. Here is a link to Mr. Walker’s other articles published on LUBP: http://criticalppp.com/archives/tag/rusty-walker

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