Letter: A 1963 memory
September 24, 2013
While in the Peace Corps in Monrovia, Liberia, my wife, June, came down with an illness that soon looked like it might be fatal. She was said to have leukemia and we would have to evacuate her back to the States. I was to go along as an escort.
So arrangements were made — we were to fly to Idyllwild Airport in New York City to go on to a Veterans Administration hospital on Staten Island. A doctor who was traveling from Lagos, Nigeria, would be on board our plane in case he was needed.
We left Roberts Field in Liberia on a Pan Am flight that originated in Johannesburg. There were to be stops in Dakar, Senegal; and Lisbon, Portugal. The first thing I noticed was the huge number of South Africans on board. This being 1963, smoking was allowed, so the South African whites were all smoking cigars and, to my surprise, telling joke after joke through the first part of the flight.
Wandering down the aisle, out of interest, I overheard what the jokes were about. In South African parlance they were "Kaffir" jokes, all of them, told loudly on an integrated flight from Africa to America.
So my introduction to the real world after some months in Liberia (which, by the way, was an extreme multi-racial experience) was to be introduced, once again, to racism of the white world and reality.
We arrived in America, and we were shuttled quickly to Staten Island. For about a month, I wandered in New York City looking for a way to get back to Liberia. June was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery. She recovered, in time, and was released from the hospital, so we were able to travel down to Washington and fight our case about our return.
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We were, in almost two months in the States, daily witness to the events in Birmingham, Ala. To wit: the beating and dog biting of children protesting segregation on the streets of that city and other events in the South. The news at the end of May was really compelling and awful. Then President Kennedy gave one of the most important speeches of his tenure. It was called the Civil Rights Speech on the 11th of June, and it was terrific. We were proud members of a society that was about to change. But the next day, Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his driveway.
We fought hard to be returned to Liberia; we were able to go back and begin our final year in that country. Three things happened: We were able to get a transfer to our preferred job, a teaching position in a small village way up country near Ivory Coast. Our real Peace Corps experience was about to begin. And we were to miss the March on Washington and not to be a national witness to the killing of Kennedy.
We traveled to Monrovia to see the documentaries on the March on Washington and the assassination of Kennedy — many ups and downs but clearly the most interesting and revealing year of my entire life.
People have asked me how I became so passionate about politics and race. The answer is 1963. When I retrace the path and watch from 1963, I am reminded again how far we have come out but how far we need to go. They say you have to be taught to hate; I believe that, because I was inspired to be non-racial at a young age by an open-minded mother, which helped me get into the Peace Corps.
When we look at 1963 and then at 2013, we see that we have moved off one set of ideas on race to new worlds. The hatred today is much more subtle, but it is there.
We still have the hatemongers, led by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and of course others. They are careful in their rants, but they still are shoveling us on a lot of code words that, nonetheless, give us hatred. With an African-American president, we are becoming used to the automatic rants, inspired by the fact of Obama.
We will not be a nation unified until we get over this racism.
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