Monday, August 26, 2013

Reflections On My Civil Rights Awakening

The events in Washington D.C. this week inspire me to share my story about racial justice awareness in my life of just past three quarters of a century.  My intent is to create reflection on what MLK called "the beloved community" and how each of us can work to make it a reality.  With the current political environment it is apparent that it is still largely a vision, not a reality.

My earliest encounter with race issues goes back to YMCA camp when I was in elementary school.  There were no African American kids in my northern California school in the late 40's/early 50's, though the community was decidedly liberal by reputation.  Black kids lived a few miles away in a mixed public housing project on the route to San Francisco.  My only encounter with them was when a few of them would launch raids at our baseball field, hiding in a nearby gully and emerging for a good fight after our practices and games.  it was kind of scary.  We'd high tail it home to avoid their attacks, armed with fists and rhetoric.

YMCA camp was mostly populated by city kids, many Being black or Asian and a few of us Anglos from nearby suburban enclaves.  I was paired with a Black kid on a camping expedition to share a double sleeping bag.  I didn't know it was a big deal until a few white campers expressed amazement  that I was chosen for this event by a counselor.  I don't remember whether I volunteered or just picked.  But, I clearly remember that he was a really great kid and I had lots of fun and felt no discomfort.  It was a really positive experience that gave me a life lesson.

Fast forward to high school in the 50's on the east coast and college in northern California.  Both environments were nearly all Anglo; overwhelmingly Anglo.  But as soon as I entered the military, things changed dramatically.  As a young officer training at a post in Baltimore I had a number of black classmates.  Soon after arrival there I became friendly with two white guys from Notre Dame's ROTC program; one from New Jersey and another from Chicago.  I guess we were drawn together by our Catholic university backgrounds.  We observed the large African American population in Baltimore.  We were joined by an affable African American guy in our training class for drinking sessions at the Officer's Club on Friday nights and the often drunken encounters with marines who wanted to duke it out with us.  So, the New Jersey guy came up with a brilliant idea.  We'd keep on our uniforms on Friday nights and the four of us would go to nearby segregated clubs and bars and try to integrate them.  The uniforms were our calling cards, pretty hard for the bouncers to argue with us as we cajoled  our way in with our black buddy.  This became a regular Friday routine and it worked.  We never failed and while the receptions were often cool at these establishments, we formed a phalanx around our buddy and were served.

Fast forward to post military life in Washington DC.  My now deceased wife and I lived in the northern Virginia suburbs, both working in DC.  There we had our first two children.  We were both liberals and were very aware of the racial stirrings around us and throughout the country, especially the south.  We were married in 1960 and as we socialized with Anglo friends in the suburban apartment complexes, we shared concerns about the racial slurs neither of us had grown us with.  Racism was a part of everyday life there, even among educated Anglos.  Though my wife's childhood neighborhood in Baltimore began to become integrated while we dated, her parents never expressed being threatened or anxiety about this change.   Today, on returning to that area, it has transformed from a mostly German heritage area with German restaurants and bakeries to almost completely African American.  It remains a tidy and well kept suburban village.

So, in 1963, soon to be transferred to a southern Virginia town,  as Washington D.C.area residents, we quite naturally attended the March on Washington and were in awe of the massive gathering.  Only years later did we fully appreciate the historic significance of MLK's speech and the impact this stirring event would have on our country. But as a face in the crowd I can attest that just being in the company of such a massive gathering of American souls felt good and created for me a sense of solidarity with a movement for economic and racial justice which stayed with me for life; a pretty long life at that.  I experienced the same feeling of solidarity 40 something years later at both Obama inaugurations.

The next major life event which fueled my passion for racial justice was following our move to Roanoke, Virginia.  Still a practicing Catholic, I became involved with the Knights of Columbus in that city.  I was recruited by a casual friend there to join him in a move to vote in the first African American member of that local body.  Our major fringe benefit of membership was a private bar in their meeting hall in a dry southern county.   My friend must have read me as a liberal and so he and I plotted our nomination of a distinguished black physician and pitch to the group consisting of mostly locals comprising the membership. ironically, few of our fellow Anglo Knights had the education our Black physician friend had attained.  My friend was a very effective communicator, evidenced by his ownership of a local radio station.  The net net result was a vote by the membership of professed Catholic defenders of the faith, using, a secret ballot technique involving, believe it or not, black and white marbles to cast our votes.  So, those supporting the physicians acceptance into membership would be secretly unidentified.  We thought under those circumstances that the doctor would be a shoe in among this group of Christians.  It was not to be.  He lost by a substantial majority of cast black ball votes.
I left the Knights of Columbus, Roanoke, shortly thereafter, though I toted my Knights sword around the country with our many future relocations, gathering dust in many closets.

The next major life experience which changed my life and solidified my search for racial justice was when my wife and I were recruited by our parish priest in our new home, Austin, Minnesota to take under our wings an African American couple who had also moved into this area from Ohio.  They would become the first black people to belong to this parish.  Once again, I guess the good padre read us correctly as liberals.  We entertained the young couple, who had a child about the age of our kids. Austin was about 98% white.  We then networked them with other friends, mostly "townies" and introduced them around at the coffee's held after mass.  It worked well and they soon were warmly embraced by this faith community.

Not long after this very positive experience, MLK was assassinated and major cities began to erupt.  My clients with my work at Hormel were major vending and catering companies in major cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., L.A. and Chicago.  Their warehouses and headquarters were mostly in industrial districts adjacent to largely African American neighborhoods.  These areas were in flames for weeks after our loss of MLK.  Being young and both very self assured and curious, I began to hang out in these community's bars in the evenings after working with my clients on road trips.  What I learned and encountered with a few beers with locals was an eye opener.  I was greeted with great curiosity as often the only white guy in the establishment but often fellow patrons opened up to me.  What I learned from these encounters was that while those I met were enraged at the loss of a great and inspiring leader, they were still hopeful for change and felt there were enough white people of good will out there to accept them as fellow human beings and provide a chance for their realization of the American Dream.  They were not in despair as I expected them to be nor as unhopeful  as I felt then.  They inspired me and infused me with the desire to engage my kids with their kids to further the movement toward justice and MLK's beloved community. 

Soon thereafter came a move to Houston, Texas.  This gave me opportunities I never imagined would be opened up for me.  There my wife and I became involved with a group which sponsored weekend "salt and pepper" parties; gatherings of adults, often with our kids.  We were Black, Hispanic  and Anglo young professionals outraged with a local school board resisting integration of our public schools and acceptance of the law of the land.  We had deliberately chosen a neighborhood which was a part of a large urban, multi-ethnic city, not the more popular suburban all white school districts embracing white flight.

These salt and pepper parties soon led to the creation of a political movement of mostly middle class white liberal, Hispanic and Black parents.  About 1,000 strong.   We organized over about a year, raised money and recruited a multi-ethinic slate of candidates to run against the intransigent, conservative school board resisting court ordered integration.  My own wife during this period ran for the State Board of Education against a very popular incumbent Republican after whom a nearby Stadium was named.  She wound up earning 44 % of  the vote, running, believe it or not, on a pro-busing platform.  But, our Houston school district slate won, taking a majority on the board and beginning the process of integrating the school district which my four children were privileged to attend.  In a few short years our candidates created some of the first magnet schools in the nation as well as gifted and talented programs later emulated by school districts all over the nation.  Our initiatives to assist Hispanic immigrant children were models also matched elsewhere.  We ultimately lost board control to backlash conservatives but it was too late for them to stop the momentum our brave board members initiated. But, best intentions were not rewarded.  Over the subsequent years the Houston schools became overwhelmingly minority populated as Anglos departed for distant suburban districts in white flight.

I also was given further awakening by association with a brilliant organizer of the liberal Democrats in Texas, Billie Carr who formed the Harris County Democrats, a shadow party to the conservative dominated Democratic Party of Harris County.  Their purpose was the ouster of the segregationist conservatives who had set the Party agenda for a hundred years.  That agenda: exclusion of Blacks and Hispanics.  I studied under Billie for several years and learned grassroots organizing at its best.  This included not only being mentored by Billie, but also Jamerson Berry, a long time Democratic Precinct Judge in the black Sunnyside community in south Houston.  Jamerson taught me techniques of block walking and black voter registration as well as counter poll watching of harassing Republicans in black voting precincts which served me for decades thereafter.  The result of this organizing mentoring?  We were able to purge the Texas Democratic Party of the Wallace faction in the early 70's and gain control of the party apparatus, paving the way for Black and Hispanic Democratic leaders and rank and file to take their political fortunes into their own hands.  Leaders like Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leeland and Craig Washington became Party visionaries and inspired me to support Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns and become a Jackson delegate.

As the years progressed, the mentoring of black Texas Democratic leaders led me to create and lead  action committees within my county Party organization to counter the voter suppression activities of the Tea Party and the Republican party. With the work of thousands of volunteers in Harris County we succeeded in securing the nomination and subsequent election of our first black President in Harris county in both 2008 and 2012, where, excepting Jimmy Carter's successful campaign, Republican's dominated our county for years.  I was privileged also to direct the communications of the successful campaign of the first African American county-wide judge in our large urban county which up to that time Republicans had dominated.

My message for my readers?  note that all along the way on this journey, I was inspired and mentored by persons who empowered and prepared me for the work ahead in seeking still unachieved racial justice.  A camp counselor, fellow liberal Army officers, MLK's Dream speech,  a Parish priest, a liberal Knight of Columbus, Black bar fellow patrons, fellow young education activists, Democratic Party activists, to name a few.   If one is open to such a task, Samaritans are out there to give you the tools to do the work toward the unending task of working toward the beloved community.