You are on page 1of 14

April 4, 1968

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.

Page 2 of


"He was shot today. Killed," she said without any particular emotional investment. Do you want coffee with dinner? I sank back in the chair, stunned. I hadn't heard. I'd been reading Paradise Lost all afternoon, parked on a remote rim of Tecolote Canyon, above the golf course. Midterm exams were approaching. 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, by the window. Without hesitating I grabbed my end of the table with both hands and slammed it forward with all the rage I could channel, 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, pinning him against the wall, utensils and condiments flying. I heard by mother gasp from the kitchen. Then I left the room silently through the kitchen door to my garage refuge behind the beads, leaving him trapped, like a child in a high chair, with spilled coffee leaking into his lap.

I had grown up in a what my parents intended to be a Christian home and made to attend fundamentalist churches. Downstairs in Sunday School classes I was deposited in at the First Federated Church in the neighboring town of Beaverdale, the children were taught a song called Jesus Loves the Little

Page 3 of


Children, part of the words to which go, Black and Yellow, Red and White, They are Precious in His Sight. Upstairs, in the adult sanctuary, they must not have sung this song because racial intolerance was not considered a contradiction in Christian values. My parents were Iowans, products of the Great Depression, working class people with high school educations. My father had once attended Iowa State for a semester or two before World War II, and then after the war enrolled in Bob Jones College, then in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in an aborted attempt to become a missionary. My mother put him up to it. Now he worked at the Post Office in La Jolla, selling stamps. My mother was a cook in the junior college cafeteria where I attended the first two years of college. Before the family moved to California in 1956, the family lived in Urbandale, an insignificant stitch in the Bible Belt a few miles northwest of Des Moines out on Douglas Avenue, where the corn fields started. There were no black people in Urbandale in the early 1950s. There were some in Des Moines but I dont remember ever seeing them. There weren't even any black players on the Des Moines Bruins minor league baseball team in those days, even though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball a few years earlier. I think that was the

Page 4 of


reason my father hated the Dodgers. What few blacks there were in Des Moines mostly lived across town, on the other side of the Des Moines River, in a place people called Nigger Town. Supposedly, they listened to heathen jazz music and all drove red Cadillacs. I don't know what percentage of this was fiction, ignorance, or envy. My dad drove Kaisers. The subtle, endemic bigotry I was exposed to growing up in Urbandale wasn't confined to my home. It flourished also at Urbandale Elementary School, among some of the teachers. In the third grade, in 1950, students in my class were taught to embrace racial prejudice even during exams. Whenever there was a trick question on a quiz, the teacher, Ms. Ruse, would alert us by saying, Theres a nigger in the woodpile.

I don't know how old I was when I first saw a photograph of a lynching - a lifeless black body dangling under a limb at the end of a rope, hands tied at the wrist behind the back, the neck bent and stretched in that unmistakable sign the struggle had gone out of it - but I never forgot how it gripped my stomach with a sickening clench. There was one picture, in a history book, of a black mother hanging dead, lynched in her field skirt beside her teenage son, who she had tried to protect from the mob. The enormity of the treachery never left me. It may have

Page 5 of


been the exact moment I shed my innocence, and came to understand there are recreants among us capable of performing or, worse, condoning such cruelty. My father would probably have been surprised to learn he was a racist. After all, he didn't participate in beatings and lynchings and may even have quietly disapproved of the barbarous practice. In the 68 years between 1882 and 1950, 4730 black people were lynched in the United States, an average of more than one a week. My father never wore the coward's white KKK robe. How he felt about lynchings I don't know. I never asked and I don't remember him saying anything about them. In the end I think he was just indifferent to racial inequality. It wasn't his problem, it was someone else's. He had a family to raise. Most of the country felt this way. An entire generation just didn't care. They had fought their war. They had earned their freedom. It would take a Martin Luther King to awaken a dormant conscience in America and it would take him years, one heart at a time. My parents professed to be born-again Christians. Yet the churches they attended also practiced militant indifference to racial oppression. Unlike Christ himself, these churches were unconcerned with any form of political oppression and only cared about spreading the word of God. It didn't seem to me that this singular vision could be reconciled with the abundant injustices

Page 6 of


that existed outside their sequestered doors. These churches took no stance on civil rights or voting rights or women's rights, or governments who lied us into illegal foreign wars. When injustice and oppression was mentioned at all, these churches coached tolerance and acceptance of the status quo, 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. Ive never gone back. The church came after me once. One time during my first year or two of college, my mother arranged for the pastor of the church the family attended, a man named Donald Bubna, to meet me one morning at a coffee shop on Clairemont Blvd. 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, leading me away from her Christian ways. I was also growing a Fu Manchu mustache as a symbol of my political rebellion she was probably hoping he could discourage. The strategy was, if I wouldnt listen to her, maybe I would listen to him. Don Bubna liked me. I was saved, in the fundamentalist sense - born again, they call it - in his church at age 16. The born-again jacket didnt wear long on me. The erosion seemed to keep step with the churchs peristaltic

Page 7 of


movement to the political right. 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.

After some small talk over coffee Don Bubna said he was concerned, like my mother, that I was straying from the path of Christ, 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, that academia was a haven for heathen non-believers. 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. His beliefs hadn't changed at all. He still thought any form of political activism was a form of religious sedition, that the church existed outside these secular concerns and that it had no role in societal injustice, 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. Id heard all that. It was that rigid rectitude that caused me to leave the church. The seeds of my rebellion were down many years earlier. I was in grade school when my dad brought home our first television. It got only one channel for only part of the

Page 8 of


day but it didnt matter. I was mesmerized. I watched everything. My cousins in Omaha got three channels and I wondered how they could decide what to watch. I watched both political conventions in the summer of 1952. I also watched a Catholic bishop name Fulton J. Sheen, 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. But I was fascinated by his attire. Our preacher wore gray suits. One day Bishop Sheen gave a presentation on evolution, complete with an illustration of the Descent of Man showing the evolution of monkey to ape to caveman to modern man. I dont recall what he believed on the subject, if he believed in evolution or not, but the chart made perfect sense to me. I shared this with my mother and she forbid me to watch that papist again. That was the devil talking, she implied, trying to lure me away from the church, away from Biblical truth, 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. A stitch opened. The seam began to unravel. Now, 15 years later, I was hearing the same thing sitting in a Naugahyde booth in a coffee shop from the preacher. 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

Page 9 of


then he and my mother and the rest of his church were part of the problem, that the role of the church should be to lead the fight for racial equality, that that's what Christ Himself would do. The meeting ended in an orthodox standoff. We shook hands and left. I never saw Don Bubna again. Many years later it would be different, but in 1968 my father believed, like Don Bubna and the callous racist J. Edgar Hoover, that Martin Luther King was a Communist agitator, not a freedom fighter. My father didn't realize nor would he have cared that my heart had been touched by King, that my conscience was one of those stirring in the nation, raised through some process that occurred when I exposed myself to higher education. I had begun to question the status quo, just as my mother feared. Before that, I was pretty much like him. Ignorant and complacent. Only a few years earlier I was an uninformed GI stationed in Germany. One year Time Magazine named King their Man of the Year. Im embarrassed to admit wrote a letter to the editor, protesting this outrage. Good Grief, I said, hoping to sound somehow erudite.

The morning after King's assassination, John Schopp, my astronomy professor, entered the lecture hall, dimmed the lights as he usually did for his slide presentation, only this time in

Page 10 of


place of some astronomical curiosity all there was on the big white projection screen behind him was a photo of a black armband. I have no idea where he got it, but it came in handy that spring. He used it again two months later, on June 7. This day he said nothing. He just looked at us, then proceeded to read the entire text of Martin Luther King's 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail, all 6,958 words. Parts of it were already familiar. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." But the part of King's letter that got me, the part I had never heard, the things I had never thought about, were a few specifics of what it's like exactly to be the target of racial hatred. 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, and how he watched helplessly as tears welled up in her eyes when he told her that Funtown is closed to colored children, and then seeing what he described as the ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky. Later, 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.

Page 11 of


But I was still snagged on Funtown. I dont know why that hit me that hard. I wasnt a father and I wasnt black, so there was no way I could understand, but something awakened inside my 25-year old heart. Maybe it was my actual inner Christian, the one that believed that Jesus loved all the children of the world, and by implication, we were to love them too. Whatever it was that stirred in me moved me a little closer to empathy that morning. In that dim, still lecture hall that morning, I cried silently and finally. I began to understand that by not being part of the solution I was actually part of the problem. "Dismissed," Dr. Schopp said when he finished reading. 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. Years later, when my own sons were in college, I wondered for the first time what my father must have thought and felt that night I heaved the table at him, dumping his Christian hypocrisy in his lap. Did he feel insulted? Enraged? Invalidated? He never said. The incident was never mentioned the rest of his life.

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. My mother, however, approached me in

Page 12 of


the garage four days after the event, with reconciliation in mind. Your father feels bad about this, she said. "Good. He should. He didnt mean anything by it. Hes a good man. "Hes a racist. Now she felt bad, trapped in the middle. We both stood there, an awkward silence forming by the beaded curtains. I handed her my copy of Kings Letter. You should read this, I said, meaning both of them. She took a slow deep breath and sighed loudly, clearly conflicted. Look, I said, His memorial service is Sunday. Why dont you come with me? She shrugged, weighing the risk, then said, Okay. Maybe she felt somehow obligated. We rarely did anything together, just the two of us, not since I was a kid. We were never very close. She was not one of those mothers to whom parenting came easy. Maybe all the love had been drained from her during her own youth, by a stern father, during harsh times. She seemed to have only one sustaining interest - her religion. Her job was not to love and encourage her children so much as it was to get them saved, in the fundamental Baptist sense, that their own interests and inclinations were of little consequence. Nothing mattered

Page 13 of


more than going to heaven. Whatever it was, I sometimes felt I had been abandoned by a mother who never left. A few times, on certain summer days of my youth, she would take me shopping with her in downtown Des Moines, to Younker Bros or Kresges department stores. On these expeditions she taught me how to roll up my sleeves, like a man, she said, and on the sidewalk to walk on the street side of her. She said that was the way gentlemen do to protect their ladies.

I picked her up that Sunday afternoon and we drove the Edsel - with its Boycott Grapes bumper sticker - across town, where we were among only a handful of white people in a crowd the UnionTribune estimated at 5,000 gathered outside in the Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park. Some cities were still smoldering after the riots triggered by King's assassination. San Diego was tense. Neither of us said anything during the program of tributes and soloists. At the end, as the sun set behind Point Loma, several hundred people, mostly black, stood and held hands and sang We Shall Overcome. The tears came again, streaming down my face as I held hands with my mother and a black woman, a stranger, all of us swaying slowly, invoking justice. Afterward, as we made our way through the crowd to the car, my mother finally spoke.

Page 14 of


Theyre all dressed so nice, she said, too loudly. I cringed, and moved a step away from her, ashamed, hoping no one had heard her. She never said whether either her or my father ever read Kings Letter from the Birmingham Jail. But, in 2008, 40 years later, at age 86, 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.