I’ve just run across a piece I drafted for my weekly newspaper column that (for reasons I don’t recall) never appeared. Given today’s important discussions about racial justice, I find it to be at least as timely as when it was written for Black History Month of 2015.
I attended grade and high school in Minonk (Ill.) where the embodiment of diversity was the one Jewish family in town, and Illinois Wesleyan when there were but a few blacks in the entire student body. So when my pursuit of a graduate degree in journalism took me to Washington, D.C., for the fall academic quarter of 1968, my education was furthered in multiple ways.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered that spring in Memphis, igniting major riots in Washington as well as in Chicago, Detroit and many other U.S. cities. Not long after that, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. At the beginning of my four-month stay in D.C., violence struck the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And while I was deep into my studies, two black athletes on the U.S. Olympic team in Mexico City sparked controversy when they raised their gloved fists in a black power salute as they stood on the medal platform and the Star-Spangled Banner played.
Gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos were booed by Americans in the crowd and were soon expelled from the Olympics for their protest. About a week later, Carlos was to make his first appearance before the news media in a Washington news conference and I was sent to cover it.
I’ve told my story about that day to relatives and friends but have never written about it in fear that a wide-eyed Minonk kid’s memory of what occurred decades ago may not be accurate. Or, in today’s parlance, I didn’t want to “Brian Williams” it.
So when I saw that Carlos would appear at Eureka College last week, I asked for some time with him. I wanted to check my memory against his. He wasn’t part of much of what I’m about to tell you, so he couldn’t verify it. But our memories are sufficiently aligned in areas where our paths did cross to give me confidence in my story.
When I hopped on a city bus in downtown Washington for the 32-cent ride that would get me to the news conference site, the passenger load was consistent with what I had seen in Washington: a lot of white marble and a lot of black faces. Perhaps half the passengers were black. I knew I wasn’t in Minonk.
As the bus traveled closer to my destination, I became a racial minority—something I had never experienced—and was further unnerved (remember the times) when the bus entered the city’s riot-torn area. I had never seen anything like it: Burned-out store fronts, blocks of war zone-like devastation, poverty and drugs.
And then, I was the only white on the bus. Whites didn’t come to this part of the city.
When we arrived at the address given for the news conference, I was initially mystified. There was no structure in good enough shape to host an event. Then I saw it: a black-owned supper club had been spared during the rioting. The news conference would be held on its large patio surrounded by a tall stone wall.
There were perhaps a dozen TV cameras and maybe 60 reporters and still photographers there. But here’s what’s hard to phantom today: In that scrum of local and national media folks in Washington, D.C., there were only three or four blacks.
Neither Carlos nor I can remember who emceed the news conference, a black lady with an Afro. But I do remember what came next.
“We told the media to send their black reporters,” she said in a firm voice to the hushed media crowd. “The next time, you white boys aren’t going to get in.”
And then someone in the back of the room—a male voice—said, “String ‘em up!”
Gulp. It was an awakening for me. And so it was for Carlos, he told me. Standing behind him, showcasing their support for him at that news conference, were the likes of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Dick Gregory and Harry Edwards, a veritable Who’s Who of black power.
“That’s when I knew I had transcended from being an athlete to being an activist,” he said. Carlos knew then that he’d have to be able to articulate a message whose bottom line was that blacks were tired of hearing “Be patient. Your day is coming.”
I don’t remember much of the actual news conference. I was worrying about what would happen next. As word spread outside about who all was inside the supper club, many dozens—perhaps hundreds—of excited black youths had gathered on the street. Standing on a corner for a bus—not just the “right” bus, but any bus that would return me to more familiar territory—had no appeal. I was considering how a student from Illinois might hitch a ride with some Washington media heavyweight.
As the news conference ended and the gates to the courtyard flew open, a bus—my bus!—pulled up. I quickly got on, and as it carried me back to downtown Washington, my minority status shifted.
I told Carlos the story. We both laughed, observing it was a racial “coming of age” story worth remembering, maybe even retelling. And then he honored me by saying that I was there when he actually began his journey of activism.
The crowd that heard him last week at Eureka College was inspired by his message that today is as much about economic equality as racial justice. He even worries that sugar-laden school meals detract from student behavior and achievement. He applauds today’s athletes who use their platform in an effort to right wrongs, and he worries whether the next generation will find the courage to step forward for causes they believe in.
Carlos was 23 when, in a life-changing moment, he stood silent, head bowed, in Mexico City. I was 21 when I got a taste of how it feels to be a minority.
As the now graying Olympian spoke at Eureka, I thought about recent events in Bloomington-Normal, about how much has changed here since 1968 and how much hasn’t.
And I thought about what FBI director James Comey said in a Washington speech this month about the need for law enforcement to redouble its efforts to resist bias and prejudice.
“We must better understand the people we serve and protect,” he said, “by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-biding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement.”
Something to think about on this last day of Black History Month.