Living With Martin Luther King: An Old White Guy’s Reflection On The Struggle For Civil Rights

First off, no, I’ve never “lived” with Martin Luther King; and he and I never had some alternative lifestyle thing going on either… so don’t come knocking at my door for interviews. 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But us Boomers (of all races) did indeed live through the period of his influence in society, and depending on your vantage point (white or black… or any other color for that matter) we came away with different perspectives.  But the end result is all that really mattered.

In another post I discussed human stereotypes and how that is part of the human condition; an extension of our need to process our environment in order to survive.  It doesn’t mean that in all cases it’s fair to apply socially but it’s still part of who we are.  Carrying that forward it’s no mystery that since man has been around he has been measuring up his fellow man (or woman, since gender is the basic stereotype) using differences that run the gamut from cultural all the way to being color of skin or other racial charactreristics.

I work with a number of black American folks, all younger than me (of course) and it struck me how the world has changed since those “struggle” days and what these younger black people have never experienced.  I have no doubt that each of these people in their own way and for as young as they are have had some racial discrimination experiences in their past.  Maybe it was being stopped on the street by profiling cops, listening to racial bigotry comments or being taunted, or maybe not being treated equally at school when they were growing up.  But by and large these discouraging events are far more rare and less intense than they were 40 or 50 years ago.  From my perspective in being with black Americans these days is that the “edgyness” is gone.  In our general conversations my fellow work comrades of color will speak of getting a car loan, a home loan, moving into a new apartment, going to school, raising a family, have inter-racial relationships, all as matter-of-factly as anyone would… without one reference to overt discrimination or the fear of it, or having some social resentment.  In fact, it’s been my observation that when social discrimination is discussed these days it’s generally within the context of the Hispanic population as it relates to illegal immigration and police profiling.  Of course this doesn’t mean there aren’t social pockets of discrimination that occur against blacks to this day… but it’s far less than it used to be and society is better for it.  We have Martin Luther King and the other leaders to thank for much of the civil rights reform… and his intrepid and courageous followers… many who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves.

As I look back I am amazed at the thoughts and images I still remember of those early days… and those early child perceptions as I was growing up witnessing this on the TV news each night.  Let me paint a picture of my own environment at the time, then you can understand better my own feelings and recollections.   I was born and raised (the 50’s & 60’s) in the far northwest side of Chicago (Norwood Park and Edison Park, adjacent to O’Hare Aiport), at the time an all-white bastion of the city.  Mayor Daley (the senior) wanted all city employees to at least live inside the city limits so our neighborhood (which broadly stated meant many square miles… not just a few streets) had more resident police and fire families per square block than anywhere else.  Hence we had pretty good protection and very little crime of any sort.  The homes in certain areas were stately turn-of-the-last-century designs with large yards, and others were newer brick homes built in the late 50’s on 25 foot wide lots.  The area was as far from the so-called inner city as one could get… literally another world.  While I was in the Chicago Public School system our area of the city had no black or hispanic students; you just never saw any people of color walking in public either.  Hispanic and Asian people were rarer yet.  When riding city buses in those days the foreign language you heard more than any was Polish… since Chicago had the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw itself.  So, one might say I was raised in a pretty racially sterile environment.  Now.. that does not mean my environment was intolerant to racial integration or that people walked the streets openly preaching segregation.  But certainly not having any diverse racial population in the area (and having the social problems and crime normally attributed to such areas) did lend itself to some degree of racial insulation.  Problems regarding racial hatred and civil rights demonstrations and riots… may have well all been happening on Mars or someplace else equally out-of-this-world.

One of the problems in reporting the news that has existed since the beginning of news reporting is that what gets reported are events… and less about what might have led to the events.  So what you get up front are the images of an end result rather than understanding the why of any situation.  When civil rights demonstrations broke out in the Southern cities and the TV showed pictures of police using water cannons and billy-clubs on the black demonstrators, it could have easily been interpreted by many of us in the North and beyond as “colored people defying authority because they want more rights”.  At least to my young and impressionable mind… a mind that actually believed the Constitution applied equally to everyone in the country because that is what I learned in school… the “colored people must be doing something wrong if the police (respected authority figures in my life) were trying to regain civil order”.  In those black & white reporting days (in many ways, well beyond just the lack of color on the TV image itself) there were no followup reports or TV specials trying to present both sides of any social story.. much less understanding the seething cauldron of social discontent brewing in many cities at the time.  That stuff just never happened in my neighborhood hence it must be a problem with “colored people” in general, a few problem upstarts getting everyone worked up, or maybe it was the Commies trying to disrupt American society.  It all sounds so ignorant and simplistic these days and we wonder now how we managed to get through it all because of our one dimensional perception of life elsewhere.

You will notice that I’ve been using the term “colored people” to describe the “negro” community.  That in itself illustrates the problem in properly identifying the folks who wanted all the civil change.  In those days there was no usage of “blacks” or “black Americans” or “African-Americans”.  Yes, the hated “N-word” was fairly common with some adults when describing those that participated in “civil disobedience” because that was perceived a social threat.  My parents… even throughout my extended family…. I never heard that word uttered.  I was never “taught” to hate.  I actually felt sorry for them because I was in a world where “colored people” were generally presumed all poor; my young mind never questioned the why.  I had an intense respect for authority in those days and if the National Guard or police were used against “the negros” then it must be needed.  My country, right or wrong.

Around the time I was in 6th grade I made two trips to Florida.  The first was with my Uncle Wil (mom’s brother).  He had a place in Florida and mom let me travel with him via train to his home in Deerfield Beach (next to some rural, obscure town named Boca Raton).  Mom and dad and baby sister would catch up with me by car in a few days.  I vividly recall looking out the train window as we passed through the deep south and the images were burned into my mind.  Miles and miles of farm fields.. cotton fields… with shacks and shanties… and poor “negroes” milling about… sitting on the porches in tattered clothes… kids watching me watching them as we passed each other, likely wondering like me what their lives must be like, albeit from much different perspectives.  But the real wake up was to come.

On the ride back to Chicago with the family we got to drive through many small towns and a few big cities.  Interstate highways were not all built at the time so we had to travel along what we would consider today as some backroads… which in those days were main highways.  What I saw would stay with me forever.  “Colored Only” drinking fountains… rest rooms… “No Colored” signs on business windows, like restaurants and general stores.  Not just an occassional sign.. but many.  I vivdly recall asking my folks from the back seat vantage point of our car,  “How is it this could be in the U.S. when our Constitution says we have to treat everyone equally?  This makes no sense.”  I was shocked.

About a year later we took another trip by car to Florida as a result of dad having had some conflict with an employee he had to terminate when he was working for my Uncle Wil.  A private investigator suggested that dad take the family and get outta Dodge for a while until things blew over.  Uncle Wil let us stay at his Florida home.  Again, the road trip took us through the deep South.. and again I saw the images of oppression everywhere in the towns we passed through.  So I had a double-dose of social and cultural awareness in having visited the South twice in about 18 months.

Mom & dad did the best they could to try and explain to me the complexities of politics, states’ rights, and civil rights regarding the “equal” application of the Constitution.  In the end I simply had to mature with the passage of time and advance through the educational process to understand better.  And trust me.. in those days, for as very young as I was, I had a deep desire to enter politics when my peers wanted to be policemen, firemen, and indian chiefs.  I had an avid interest in social studies and history.  So my questions regarding civil unrest and the poor and “colored people” were not just passing curiosity questions but sincere interest.

But I couldn’t do anything with what I learned or saw when I got back to the confines of my own little world, although I did have a vantage point the other kids didn’t have.  Most importantly.. I never forgot.  In the meantime the civil rights struggle was continuing, and reported on TV.  Sheriff Clark became infamous with his KKK-acquired “cavalry” that brutally dispersed the peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama; riots in Watts in Los Angeles… in Detroit… in Chicago.  Many adults and kids questioned the images of black looters walking off with TV sets and torching businesses…. in their own neighborhoods.

Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to the forefront of the civil rights movement but there was an odd interpretation of his involvement from our isolated community.  Many thought he was simply an upstart… rabble rouser.  Given history since those troubled days has determined King’s leadership in the movement as the heart of the struggle, in the middle 60’s he was seen in communities like ours as being part of the problem in the start of all the riots and social discontent.  We saw the NAACP, SCLC, Black Panthers, the introduction of “black power”… not as individual civil rights agendas but as a collective black American threat to the white status quo.  There was fear… on both sides.

But as the struggle continued and all the marches in all the cities brought to light the reasons for all the discontent, there did become a growing awareness of a ligitimacy to it all.  King’s speeches began to ring true.  I recall in Chicago there was an underlying fear of having “one” move into your neighborhood.  That somehow this new person would bring in his family, his extended family, and there would end being overcrowding in the home, filth, and their friends would turn the neighborhood into a ghetto… like the south and west sides of the city.  It became rare to see “for sale” real estate signs in white neighborhoods as real estate companies would unscrupulously try to hide homes for sale in order to thwart blacks buying them.  Through the efforts of King and Jackson, and the others, with their freedom marches through white areas of the city raising importance to the unfair treatment, the city council passed a prohibition in the non-use of for sale signs as a way of segregation.  In the meantime, “white flight” from the cities became a worry as urban whites “fled” cities for the burbs.

I remember busing being an issue.  Mother told me that likely black mothers didn’t want their kids being transported to schools outside of their neighborhood either.  But this was the government’s way of trying to level the educational opportunities for the poor and black people.  Actually, when I was in high school busing in our neighborhood was not readily apparent.  It wasn’t until I had graduated in 1969 that I had heard my high school might be involved.  When I was home on leave from the military in the mid 70’s I was shocked to see many black students standing on the corners waiting for buses in our predominantly white neighborhoods following a day of school.  Times were indeed a changin’.

But through all that we survived.. black AND white alike.  During those days I had my doubts about Rev. King and his cohorts in all those marches that just seemed to breed discontent and riots… but I personally never lost sight of unfairness and the need for equality.  As I grew and matured and mixed with all races over the years I have developed a respect for Rev. King and his.. compatriots… who did indeed make sacrifices.. many paying with their lives.  It was a tough and violent time.  We had to go through it so that today, the children of us who lived through those events, from all racial corners, have a far better life and equal opportunity.  The movement wasn’t perfect.. in fact, it noticably left out the struggle for women’s rights (you recall seeing images of women in leadership in all those marches?).  But it did work.

All those signs I saw while driving through those rural towns of the deep South… all that poverty… and all those black kids looking back at me looking at them from the window of my train, taking me safely away from all that while they had to stay… is still etched in my mind.  Somewhere, somehow, those kids in those shanties and shacks got older… and had kids of their own.. and their kids are with my kids… hopefully in a better world for it all.


5 thoughts on “Living With Martin Luther King: An Old White Guy’s Reflection On The Struggle For Civil Rights

  1. Doug,
    Are the photos on this blog public domain? Our choir is doing a video to be played along side a commissioned work and we are looking for some civil rights unrest photos. Thanks.

  2. I am creating a National History Day project on Martin Luther King and i would appreciate being able to use some of the pictures from your website.

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