"I was 13. What I remember about the 1963 March on Washington and the horrific events leading up to it is visceral, emotions filtered through my mother. Pictures and stories about what happened over that summer came afterward. TV was not a regular part of our lives and I suspect my parents sheltered us from the gruesome, tragic pictures on the news. So the measure of what was good and evil in the world developed from the dinner table discussions as much as from any media story. Viola Liuzzo was from Detroit near where we lived at the time, so I think my mother,who was the same age, was particularly struck by her courage. She probably carried some guilt for not also being more active in the voting rights cause and the March as I did later with the March against the Vietnam War. She was involved in local activities through our church, and I know she was a voice for the marginalized as a social worker in the high school, but I’m sure that never measured up in her mind. The names of Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Martin Luther King and others have an electrical charge for me because I came to understand the horror and sadness, the hopes and the determination through the emotions of my mother.
"I would have my own experiences later, of course, as I grew up in a community where the John Birch Society was very active. I had already experienced the class snobbery of that community. We were solidly middle class surrounded by the wealthy. My older brother worked hard to be included in that group – something I think he still does. I saw him angry and spiteful at times to my parents because he didn’t have the vestiges of wealth – a car, clothes, etc. that were the badges of the very privileged. I also saw this incredibly sensitive and talented artist crushed by the traditional mores of the community. I carry with me a hard edge against the wealthy to this day for that reason. In some ways the prejudice of the John Birch Society and wealth have merged in my mind, so I have to be very careful of my assumptions even with some of my own family members.
"Several events happened in my senior year in high school that influence my attitudes, commitments and beliefs to this day. I was a senior when Martin Luther King came to speak at my high school in Grosse Pointe in February (I think) of 1968. I have often wondered who decided this was a good place to speak where he must have known the John Birch Society was loud and nasty (in a very “proper” sort of way - no burning crosses). Why not Detroit where he would have been met with passion and accord?
"As a member of the student council, I was chosen as an usher for the speech. We were to seat people, and we got to see Martin Luther King speak in person. Before the event, all the high school ushers were prepped by someone – wish I could remember who – the police maybe. This person explained that there would be organized hecklers and that they would most likely seat themselves around the auditorium in a diamond pattern which would make their numbers seem larger as they jeered. We were told that we were not responsible for keeping order – there were police there for that – but we were urged to help influence those who were reacting negatively, especially among our peers. Very early before the speech, people began to filter in and sit in various places around the gym-auditorium. I can’t say if it was suggestion or fact, but it did look as though there was a deliberateness to where they sat. And from my final listening spot up in far left balcony, the jeers sounded very loud and shocking indeed.
"I was seated above Martin Luther King, but, as balcony seats go, I was pretty close. I really don’t remember his words so much as how he responded to these hecklers. They tried to interrupt his every sentence and distract him from his purpose. At one point, he stopped what he was saying and invited one of the hecklers to come up and join him to talk about his points. The person didn’t respond. What impressed me most was how gracious and patient he was with these hate-filled people. He offered them space to speak rather than dishonoring them with anger. I’m sure his response came from many years of practice in other places, but most certainly it came from his belief in democracy and non-violence and his life as a teacher/preacher. In that moment he became my mentor and hero.
"Shortly after his speech there was a town meeting about allowing Wayne State University to offer classes in the evening at the high school. There was a good deal of opposition to this because it would bring college students of color to the community. My mother and I went to the town meeting to listen and support the proposal to offer the classes. I listened to the weak arguments against the proposal – no one was raising the race issue. Finally, with Martin Luther King in my head, and fierce whispers with my mother (who was afraid of me making a target of myself), I stood up and said that the opposition really was all about black students attending the classes. I don’t even remember if the proposal was passed or not. I do remember my mother whisking me out of the auditorium before I could be spoken to by one of the opposition. For the few months before my high school graduation, we would get terrible phone calls, most of which my parents intercepted; but on one phone call that I took, the woman said she would make sure I couldn’t get into any college. I found out years later that during those months people put threats in our mailbox vowing to burn down our house.
"And in April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember coming home from school and my mother met me at the door with, 'They’ve shot him.' I didn’t even have to clarify who. We held each other and wept.
"I saw the movie 'Butler' last night. I cried all the way through it and all the way home. It covered the whole time-span of my life and brought back those visceral moments – so many of the things I felt terrible about then and still do. I try to keep John Lewis’ most recent words of hopeful acknowledgement and cautioning realism in my head – that we have come a long way, but we have a great distance to go."