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King, Kennedy, mom and dad - Déjà vu all over again

In the early Spring of 1968 my mother began playing a Michelle Lee album she purchased.

For weeks “L. David Sloane” and the laments of a woman trying to escape a lover she knew was bad for her filled the house. When Lee said at the end of the song, “get off my back!” I can remember on more than one occasion my 30-year-old mother vamping in her hip-length boots and best Jane Fonda hairdo as she lip-synched to the song.

Mom was an actress and a television personality in our home town and watching her trying to move beyond the stereotypical housewife in the ‘60s into a modern career woman during the Civil Rights era is a piercing memory of my childhood.

As it turns out, 1968 was a pivotal year for all of us alive – I just did not notice it as I was busy playing with my GI Joe action figure and mixing it up with my backyard games of war and football.

The Tet offensive in Vietnam was a headline. Riots in Washington, D.C. and across the country, including those in my hometown were mere curiosities. When the television station issued riot warnings, I remember going outside and playing in the street hoping I would catch a glimpse of a riot just to see what one was all about. Okay, I was a kid and not that wise in the ways of riots.

But two incidents in 1968, between body bags and riots, made a huge impression on me and contributed to my own awareness of what my mother was going through as she grappled with “the way things have always been.”

In quick succession we lost Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. When King got gunned down in Memphis, my mom was stunned. King spoke to Civil Rights and was inspirational not only to African Americans, but to women and men everywhere who saw the endless possibilities of equality and democracy. When Bobby Kennedy came out in Indianapolis the day King was assassinated, he spoke to a mostly Black audience and tried hard to bring a grieving nation together.

“For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

My family of immigrants from the Middle East, Catholics who were routinely called “towel heads,” “A-Rabs” and “papists” from some of our neighbors drew strength from Martin Luther King who tried to find common ground among all ethnicities. Mom and Dad both drew strength from Bobby Kennedy because the Kennedys too are Catholic.

Two months later, we lost Bobby, too.

The body bags kept coming from Vietnam.

Riots flared all over the country. We were as divided as a nation as I can remember.

The Democratic Convention in Chicago that Summer resonate with me because it touched our neighborhood indirectly in Kentucky.

There we were, this little subdivision existing on the former farmland of the Bashford Manor House – where slaves had lived. The home my father bought was on the former pasture where one of the first thoroughbreds to win the Kentucky Derby was kept. The high school I attended – which was a block from where I lived - was home to Diane Sawyer and Wes Unseld.

Our little subdivision was divided that summer. At the house where kids gathered to shoot basketball – a perennial activity where I grew up – talk centered around the riots that occurred after King’s death and the politics which divided us.

I was forced for the first time in my life to take a stand – and I thought I was too young to do so.

Naturally, I sided with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys. Dad told me my grandparents marched with King when he came to town – and I had been held by King and John Kennedy as a baby. Naturally, I don’t remember any of that.

But I figured my parents would not steer me wrong and so when a friend of mine on the basketball court called King a racial slur, I responded angrily.

I did not want to appeal to the finer points of humanity, I did not heed the cue to “turn the other cheek” I just got angry and started throwing fists. Dad took me aside later that night and schooled me up on the error of my ways.

But something changed in the world the day Martin Luther King Jr. died. My mom put away “L. David Sloane” a short time later. Her good nature seemed to wane.

When Bobby got killed it took her down another notch.

I look around today and wonder if this is where those chaotic days of the ‘60s have led us. Was there another way to go? And more importantl,y how do we turn the tide now?

The words of King still ring true: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

 

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