When I was young…
You saw Forrest Gump, didn’t you? You remember when he was confronting the Black Panthers? It was pretty much like that.
We were all mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. How could you relegate someone to the back of the bus because they weren’t the right color? What difference did it make what color they were when it came to school? I was a teenager, so I knew the answers to everything. The only blacks I ever saw were on the campus of the university, and they kept to themselves. You hardly ever saw them downtown. Why? Because our town had a very unfortunate reputation.
There was a lynching in the 30s. Apparently, a black man raped a white school teacher. He was being held in the jail and the Sherriff didn’t want to release him to the mob, but they beat him up and dragged the prisoner out of the jail and tied him to the back end of a truck or car or something, and dragged him down the cobblestone streets. It was killing him too quickly, so instead, they tied him to the top of the schoolhouse and burned the schoolhouse down.
All the news on TV was just plain scary. There were these guys with the big afros yelling and threatening people, and then there were the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968. All whites were “the man” and wanted to put down and destroy the black communities. All the blacks were lawless animals with no more common sense than a gorilla. Neither side trusted the other. Look up the Chicago 7. Bobby Seale was one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. He and 6 others (all white) were part of the anti-war, civil rights protests. Mayor Daley imposed a curfew for people UNDER age 21, cut off traffic, and stopped the sale of weapons and ammunition.
The next day, they had deployed 10,500 police, 6700 National Guard, and over 5000 soldiers from the 1st armored and 5th infantry divisions were ordered into the city by President Johnson. “The general in charge declared that no one was allowed to have gatherings in the riot areas and authorized the use of tear gas. Mayor Richard J. Daley gave police the authority “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand … and … to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city,” quoted the Chicago Tribune. Do you see the similarities between the reactions online and the ones they employed in Chicago? And because it was in the middle of the Viet Nam war, the press had discovered it had enormous power over the policies and protocols of the government. Had the press not been present at the riots, we might not have known much about them. But they were there and we saw the police beating on people with batons, and tear gas, and wounded civilians, and looting and arson. The truth was out on display. There was no way to deny what was going on.
We were scared of those angry black people, and we were shocked and embarrassed and furious at the police, and distrustful of the government, and helpless. The Chicago riots happened the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The unrest and protests were centered mainly on college campuses around the nation. Since my folks worked at the University, they were on the front lines. But in 1968, my dad was studying for his doctorate at Columbia University in New York City. He got a street-level view of what was happening. The press in NY was out to get the best stories, even if they had to create them. When there was a protest outside of Columbia, the press showed up and people were just standing around. One of the members of the press suggested that someone throw a brick or a bottle and push each other around so they could get pictures. So they did. Then the press packed up and left and the protesters went back to just standing around. This was not what happened in Chicago, or Watts or Harlem.
When my dad got back in 1969, in addition to Viet Nam protests and Civil Rights protests, there was a huge spike in drugs on campuses as well. Heroin, Cocaine, LSD, Pot, and various uppers and downers were widespread and in heavy use. During the riots, you could hear explosions followed by giggling. Some of the rioters would experience bad trips and set off another series of violent acts and panic. Most white people in my home town basically stayed home, and the black students hid. When I started college in 1973, the race relations were very much improved among students on the campus, but not in the communities. When “Roots” came out, since I didn’t have my own TV, I went to the student lounge to watch. 30 people in the room, and I was the only white person. I couldn’t miss any of it and I became less and less noticed. I was like furniture. But who talks to furniture? I made no friends in those gatherings.
The comics, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Red Fox, and Bill Cosby were becoming mainstream, and newer black comics were starting to become more commonplace. My dad even had a few records by Bill Cosby. Bill never did the race jokes, but the others did, especially Richard Pryor. He made the white people in the clubs where he did stand-up very nervous, but when he was on television, the white people at home felt safe and could let a part of his message sink in. But blacks were still fighting for the same considerations that we took for granted. Many of the whites were saying that the laws were passed, so now discrimination was over. It wasn’t.
I think the race situation seemed strange to me because we were musicians. Which musicians did you think of when you played jazz? Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Oscar Pederson, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis, Jr. This is what we listened to at home. Dizzy Gillispie and that wild trumpet of his was not a black man playing trumpet, he was a man playing a wild trumpet. Why? Because we never WATCHED them perform, we just heard them. I knew Dizzy played a weird trumpet because my dad described the trumpet to me. In fact, until I saw Al Hirt’s picture, I thought he was probably black because he played Dixieland jazz, and that was in New Orleans. It wasn’t until I saw Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald on TV that I knew they were black, and it didn’t seem weird at all that they were a different color. My mom described race to me with apples. She said, “Here taste this. What is it?” “It’s an apple.” “But what color apple?” “I can’t tell, it’s peeled.” “So it doesn’t matter what color it is?” “Nah, it’s still an apple.” “Well, there ya go.”
Here’s the thing: after the assassination of MLK in 1968 and the riots and protests, 9 years later, the blacks still had to fight for equal treatment. And here we are, over 50 years later and WE’RE STILL FACING THE SAME PROBLEMS! The riots don’t change the right things, the legislation doesn’t change the right things, the protests and the social media and the news don’t change the right things. What does? Only if the hearts change do people change. Only when we open our minds with our hearts will people be treated alike, because the heart is blind.