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by Douglas Page ©2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
“Did you hear about Martin Luther King?" my mother asked as we sat down to dinner that night. It was April 4, 1968. A Thursday. I was a 25-year old college junior attending San Diego State, living behind beaded curtains in a corner of my parent's garage, already a four-year military veteran. "No," I said. “What about him?” Probably another beating, arrest, or character smear instigated by the constitutional scofflaw FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, carried out by some southern thug with a badge. King was arrested 30 times in 12 years for the commendable crime of leading the Civil Rights Movement.
I heard by mother gasp from the kitchen. I hadn't heard. above the golf course. utensils and condiments flying. by the window. stunned. leaving him trapped." she said without any particular emotional investment.Page 2 of 14 "He was shot today. “Do you want coffee with dinner?” I sank back in the chair. like a child in a high chair. I had grown up in a what my parents intended to be a Christian home and made to attend fundamentalist churches. Midterm exams were approaching. pinning him against the wall. The radio in my Edsel didn't work. "It was about time." my father sneered from behind a newspaper at the opposite end of the table. the children were taught a song called “Jesus Loves the Little . shoving it into my father's stomach with such force it drove him and his chair a foot or more straight back across the linoleum floor. with spilled coffee leaking into his lap. Downstairs in Sunday School classes I was deposited in at the First Federated Church in the neighboring town of Beaverdale. Killed. Without hesitating I grabbed my end of the table with both hands and slammed it forward with all the rage I could channel. Then I left the room silently through the kitchen door to my garage refuge behind the beads. parked on a remote rim of Tecolote Canyon. I'd been reading Paradise Lost all afternoon.
then in Chattanooga.Page 3 of 14 Children”. Upstairs. working class people with high school educations. products of the Great Depression. selling stamps. Now he worked at the Post Office in La Jolla. the family lived in Urbandale. part of the words to which go. in the adult sanctuary. There were no black people in Urbandale in the early 1950s. where the corn fields started. even though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball a few years earlier. they must not have sung this song because racial intolerance was not considered a contradiction in Christian values. Before the family moved to California in 1956. Red and White. There weren't even any black players on the Des Moines Bruins minor league baseball team in those days. “Black and Yellow. in an aborted attempt to become a missionary. I think that was the . and then after the war enrolled in Bob Jones College. My father had once attended Iowa State for a semester or two before World War II. an insignificant stitch in the Bible Belt a few miles northwest of Des Moines out on Douglas Avenue. There were some in Des Moines but I don’t remember ever seeing them. My parents were Iowans. They are Precious in His Sight”. My mother was a cook in the junior college cafeteria where I attended the first two years of college. Tennessee. My mother put him up to it.
students in my class were taught to embrace racial prejudice even during exams. lynched in her field skirt beside her teenage son. Ms. What few blacks there were in Des Moines mostly lived across town. “There’s a nigger in the woodpile. on the other side of the Des Moines River. In the third grade. they listened to heathen jazz music and all drove red Cadillacs. Whenever there was a trick question on a quiz. among some of the teachers. endemic bigotry I was exposed to growing up in Urbandale wasn't confined to my home. in a history book. My dad drove Kaisers. Supposedly. who she had tried to protect from the mob. ignorance. There was one picture. in a place people called Nigger Town. would alert us by saying. the neck bent and stretched in that unmistakable sign the struggle had gone out of it . I don't know what percentage of this was fiction. The enormity of the treachery never left me.Page 4 of 14 reason my father hated the Dodgers. or envy. Ruse. hands tied at the wrist behind the back. of a black mother hanging dead. in 1950.a lifeless black body dangling under a limb at the end of a rope. It may have .” I don't know how old I was when I first saw a photograph of a lynching . the teacher.but I never forgot how it gripped my stomach with a sickening clench. It flourished also at Urbandale Elementary School. The subtle.
My father never wore the coward's white KKK robe. worse. In the end I think he was just indifferent to racial inequality. it was someone else's.Page 5 of 14 been the exact moment I shed my innocence. My parents professed to be born-again Christians. I never asked and I don't remember him saying anything about them. After all. one heart at a time. It didn't seem to me that this singular vision could be reconciled with the abundant injustices . Yet the churches they attended also practiced militant indifference to racial oppression. They had earned their freedom. Most of the country felt this way. Unlike Christ himself. It wasn't his problem. 4730 black people were lynched in the United States. and came to understand there are recreants among us capable of performing or. an average of more than one a week. How he felt about lynchings I don't know. They had fought their war. condoning such cruelty. It would take a Martin Luther King to awaken a dormant conscience in America and it would take him years. In the 68 years between 1882 and 1950. My father would probably have been surprised to learn he was a racist. He had a family to raise. An entire generation just didn't care. these churches were unconcerned with any form of political oppression and only cared about spreading the word of God. he didn't participate in beatings and lynchings and may even have quietly disapproved of the barbarous practice.
Page 6 of 14 that existed outside their sequestered doors. in the fundamentalist sense . I was saved. The erosion seemed to keep step with the church’s peristaltic . a man named Donald Bubna. leading me away from her Christian ways. One time during my first year or two of college.born again. Don Bubna liked me. to meet me one morning at a coffee shop on Clairemont Blvd. I’ve never gone back. The church came after me once. these churches coached tolerance and acceptance of the status quo.in his church at age 16. my mother arranged for the pastor of the church the family attended. The strategy was. if I wouldn’t listen to her. She was concerned that I was being overly influenced by the anti-war movement and by radical professors who were planting sinister ideas about science and race in my mind. When injustice and oppression was mentioned at all. maybe I would listen to him. I was also growing a Fu Manchu mustache as a symbol of my political rebellion she was probably hoping he could discourage. These churches took no stance on civil rights or voting rights or women's rights. The born-again jacket didn’t wear long on me. they call it . or governments who lied us into illegal foreign wars. as though Christ himself couldn't be bothered with lynchings and bombings of Sunday School classrooms filled with small black children. It was this indifference to social issues that drove me from the church.
The seeds of my rebellion were down many years earlier. It was that rigid rectitude that caused me to leave the church. His beliefs hadn't changed at all. I hadn't been to church since high school but it was clear that. while the country was beginning to stir from two centuries of racial oppression. he and his church hadn't noticed. that the church existed outside these secular concerns and that it had no role in societal injustice. that it was fairly common for young people to be tempted away from the Christian flock by atheist conspirators they encountered when they attended secular colleges. There was little trace of it left on me by the time the televangelists began peddling their particular brand of crazy Christian Bronze Age dogma around the clock on cable. It got only one channel for only part of the . like my mother.Page 7 of 14 movement to the political right. that academia was a haven for heathen non-believers. After some small talk over coffee Don Bubna said he was concerned. I was in grade school when my dad brought home our first television. I’d heard all that. that the state of the world was the result of the sinful nature of man and the only remedy for that was to accept the way of Christ. that I was straying from the path of Christ. He still thought any form of political activism was a form of religious sedition.
I was hearing the same thing sitting in a Naugahyde booth in a coffee shop from the preacher. The seam began to unravel. One day Bishop Sheen gave a presentation on evolution. I watched both political conventions in the summer of 1952. who had an afternoon show wherein he paced in his red robes and gold satin ropes in front of a blackboard and lectured on matters I didn't understand. I shared this with my mother and she forbid me to watch “that papist” again. but the chart made perfect sense to me. I was mesmerized. I listened to Pastor Bubna for a while that morning then told him that I believed that if you weren't part of the solution . A stitch opened. That was the devil talking. I don’t recall what he believed on the subject. I watched everything. she implied. away from Biblical truth. Now. complete with an illustration of the Descent of Man showing the evolution of monkey to ape to caveman to modern man. which was that God had created everything just the way it was and that science was a pagan trap sent to tempt us away from the teaching of the Bible. Sheen. But I was fascinated by his attire. I also watched a Catholic bishop name Fulton J. trying to lure me away from the church.Page 8 of 14 day but it didn’t matter. 15 years later. if he believed in evolution or not. My cousins in Omaha got three channels and I wondered how they could decide what to watch. Our preacher wore gray suits.
Edgar Hoover. that the role of the church should be to lead the fight for racial equality. “Good Grief”. Only a few years earlier I was an uninformed GI stationed in Germany. Many years later it would be different. The morning after King's assassination. like Don Bubna and the callous racist J. entered the lecture hall. not a freedom fighter. hoping to sound somehow erudite. I never saw Don Bubna again. Before that. but in 1968 my father believed. only this time in . We shook hands and left. that that's what Christ Himself would do. I said. I was pretty much like him. protesting this outrage. I had begun to question the status quo. The meeting ended in an orthodox standoff. My father didn't realize nor would he have cared that my heart had been touched by King. Ignorant and complacent.Page 9 of 14 then he and my mother and the rest of his church were part of the problem. dimmed the lights as he usually did for his slide presentation. just as my mother feared. I’m embarrassed to admit wrote a letter to the editor. John Schopp. One year Time Magazine named King their Man of the Year. my astronomy professor. that my conscience was one of those stirring in the nation. raised through some process that occurred when I exposed myself to higher education. that Martin Luther King was a Communist agitator.
Parts of it were already familiar. were a few specifics of what it's like exactly to be the target of racial hatred. he explained what it's like to sleep in the uncomfortable corners of his car on a cross-country drive night after night because no motel would rent him a room. I have no idea where he got it." But the part of King's letter that got me.958 words." and "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He used it again two months later. . and how he watched helplessly as tears welled up in her eyes when he told her that Funtown is closed to colored children. the part I had never heard. but it came in handy that spring. This day he said nothing.Page 10 of 14 place of some astronomical curiosity all there was on the big white projection screen behind him was a photo of a black armband. and then seeing what he described as the ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky. Somewhere way down in the letter it details the paternal agony he felt trying to explain to his six-year-old daughter why she couldn't go to the public amusement park that she had just seen advertised on television. all 6. He just looked at us. the things I had never thought about. then proceeded to read the entire text of Martin Luther King's 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail. on June 7. Later.
Schopp said when he finished reading.Page 11 of 14 But I was still snagged on Funtown. I snatched a copy of the letter from a stack on a stool by the door and bolted from the room before anyone could see the tears in my eyes. Did he feel insulted? Enraged? Invalidated? He never said. approached me in . we were to love them too. My mother. still lecture hall that morning. but something awakened inside my 25-year old heart. and by implication. I cried silently and finally. I wasn’t a father and I wasn’t black. The incident was never mentioned the rest of his life. however. dumping his Christian hypocrisy in his lap. the one that believed that Jesus loved all the children of the world. I don’t know why that hit me that hard. "Dismissed. Whatever it was that stirred in me moved me a little closer to empathy that morning. so there was no way I could understand. I wondered for the first time what my father must have thought and felt that night I heaved the table at him. In that dim. Years later." Dr. when my own sons were in college. I began to understand that by not being part of the solution I was actually part of the problem. Maybe it was my actual inner Christian. After the table attack I avoided my father for several weeks. taking meals elsewhere and using the bathroom in the house only when he was at work.
not since I was a kid.” she said. with reconciliation in mind.” Maybe she felt somehow obligated.” Now she felt bad.” “He didn’t mean anything by it. trapped in the middle.” I said. I handed her my copy of King’s Letter. weighing the risk.” "He’s a racist. an awkward silence forming by the beaded curtains. She seemed to have only one sustaining interest . We rarely did anything together. during harsh times. Nothing mattered . She took a slow deep breath and sighed loudly.her religion. He should. Maybe all the love had been drained from her during her own youth. then said. He’s a good man. “His memorial service is Sunday. She was not one of those mothers to whom parenting came easy. Her job was not to love and encourage her children so much as it was to get them saved. We both stood there. “Look. “Okay. just the two of us. We were never very close. meaning both of them.Page 12 of 14 the garage four days after the event. clearly conflicted. “Your father feels bad about this. in the fundamental Baptist sense.” I said. by a stern father. that their own interests and inclinations were of little consequence. Why don’t you come with me?” She shrugged. “You should read this. "Good.
like a man. streaming down my face as I held hands with my mother and a black woman. stood and held hands and sang We Shall Overcome. a stranger.across town. she said.Page 13 of 14 more than going to heaven. she would take me shopping with her in downtown Des Moines. mostly black. She said that was the way gentlemen do to protect their ladies. and on the sidewalk to walk on the street side of her. I sometimes felt I had been abandoned by a mother who never left. on certain summer days of my youth. invoking justice. Afterward. several hundred people. . At the end.with its Boycott Grapes bumper sticker . Some cities were still smoldering after the riots triggered by King's assassination. to Younker Bros or Kresge’s department stores. San Diego was tense. my mother finally spoke. On these expeditions she taught me how to roll up my sleeves. where we were among only a handful of white people in a crowd the UnionTribune estimated at 5. Neither of us said anything during the program of tributes and soloists. The tears came again. all of us swaying slowly. A few times. as we made our way through the crowd to the car. as the sun set behind Point Loma. Whatever it was. I picked her up that Sunday afternoon and we drove the Edsel .000 gathered outside in the Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park.
But. #### . too loudly.Page 14 of 14 “They’re all dressed so nice. in 2008. and moved a step away from her.” she said. at age 86. hoping no one had heard her. 40 years later. She never said whether either her or my father ever read King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. ashamed. I cringed. a widow for 25 year. she told me she voted for Barack Obama. She didn't say anything about how nice the Obama family was dressed in Chicago that night.
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