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from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.
Sunday, August 07, 2005
I am, since May 23, in my 60th year, one in which I will periodically look back, reflect, and ask and perhaps answer questions such as that in the title.
Today’s reflection is about my growing awareness during the early part of my life of injustice, and how it shaped me. I do not assert that my insights or experiences are profound. They are mine, and I share them as an explanation in part of who I am and why I react and write as I do.
I cannot claim that I was the perfect child. At times I was not even all that good of a child. I might have been different, except for an incident in First Grade. We were in in the art room, working on clay. The class was particularly ill-behaved that day, and after a while the art teacher blurted out that everyone had been misbehaving except Kenny. Our classroom teacher, Mrs. Richardson, then announced that we were going back to our room, and everyone would be held after school except for me. I felt the angry stares of my classmates. As it happened, since we didn’t have bells at Murray Avenue, Mrs. Richardson actually let me out about 8 minutes early, and everyone else almost on time. When I walked outside I saw all the cars lined up to pick up the school children. I felt very alone, the only child outside, not willing to find the car from our local carpool, not wanting to explain what had happened.
That was near the ned of First Grade. I had learned that lesson well. In 2nd grade I was one of the worst behaved in my class. I was in 2D, with Mrs. Ploughman. Her solution ot misbehavior was to send students next door to 2C. The embarrassment was supposed to make us alter our behavior. But I quickly realized that students from 2D were sent to 2C for the same reason. It couldn’t be that harsh a punishment. So I misbehaved in 2C as well. In desperation, Mrs. Ploughman tried sending me back to my first grade teacher, knowing that I had been very close to her, and that I had had no record of class disruption the previous year (note the aforementioned incident). When I disrupted that class, I was for the first time in my life sent to the principal, Miss Loretta Hirschbeck, all 6’1” before she put on her heels.
My family was very close to Miss Hirschbeck. I had a sister 3 grades ahead of me, and she had helped my mother get a string instrument program started in the school. By now I was playing cello. It was April. Miss Hirschbeck knew how to handle me. I had sent her a Valentine. She asked if I remembered it. I nodded my head silently. She asked if I knew what all the Xs I had placed before singing meant. I nodded again. She then told me that if I didn’t behave myself, she would collect all of the Xs in front of the whole school at the next assembly. My eyes became very wide, and for the rest of elementary school, until after several weeks in 6th grade I finally skipped, I appeared to behave. Note the way I expressed it. I did enough improper things not to stick out from my peers, but I became damn sure I didn’t get caught. It also meant that I was determined not to be a tattletale. And I did not speak up when I saw things that were wrong.
The first time I truly became aware of injustice was when I was around 10. It was during an extended family trip to Miami Beach when I was in 5th grade. This would be December of 1956. I remember getting off the plane and going into the terminal at Miami and seeing signs on bathrooms that said they were only for whites, and seeing signs pointing outside for the “colored restrooms.” I asked my parents about this, and my mother told me that in the South Negroes were largely kept separate from whites, that it was called segregation. For the first time in my life I was aware of people being treated differently for what they were.
Surprisingly, I had not encountered this growing up. Our neighborhood was all white, to be sure. Most of the Blacks we saw were delivery people or domestic servants. We had had maids who were both white and black in our household, so the fact that most Blacks were working in lesser jobs had not registered on me. And although we were Jewish, our neighborhood and our school were both quite mixed at least on religion. About the only difference I had noticed is when Billy van Heusen, who later played several years in the NFL, came over to our house to play, and when we went ot the bathroom I noticed a physical difference. When I asked my parents about that, I was told about circumcision, and how Jewish boys all were but many Christian boys were not. And since religion did not make a difference in my playmates, and because it was still relatively shortly after WWII, we did not, even in Jewish Sunday school, really talk about the Holocaust. Out textbooks would talk about how Jackie Robinson was a credit to his race, and the model example of an African American was likely to be Booker T. Washington. Although Rosa Parks had already created history in Montgomery, I have no memory of our talking about it, or of seeing anything about it on our old black and white television.
When I looked around the hotel in Miami, I realized very quickly that not only were there no black guests, just about all the guests were Jewish. My sister made a close friendship with a young lady from Scranton Penna, who that summer would join us at national Music Camp in Interlochen Michigan, and who would later be at Bryn Mawr while I was first at Haverford. I was beginning to notice segregation and discrimination, whether enforced by law or by custom. And it troubled me.
It is written of the Buddha that his father tried to shield him from all unpleasantness, surrounding him with beauty and tranquility. Thus when he firsts encountered a beggar it was a shattering experience, one which caused him to embark on his spiritual quest that eventually, years later, led to his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Although the encounter with segregation presented me with an awareness I had previously lacked, it did not cause as yet any major changes in my life, but the seeds had been planted.
My elementary school was all white - I do not remember a single Black in my entire grade, nor when I skipped into junior high school after 6 weeks in the Fall of 1957, although there were blacks in my grade, I was in one of the two “gifted” classes in 7th grade, and we had no blacks. But they were in gym class, so I first got to know blacks of my own age. When I had returned to Interlochen in the summer of 1957, I looked around at a group of junior campers that was also all black. This was my 4th year, and I would have 4 more after this. There were so few blacks, even at the high school level, that they stood out, and stuck in my memory: I most remember the superb violinist Darwin Apple, later concertmaster of a second tier orchestra, and who had an adequate solo career in smaller venues.
That Fall of 1957 was important for another reason, and that was Central High School in Little Rock. This time I watched the events on television, we talked about them at home, and at school. I read a great deal in our various daily papers, which in our house meant at least 4 during the week - the local Mamaroneck Daily Times, the NY Times, the Herald Tribune, and the World Telegram (which my mother read on the train on the way home from her law office in downtown Manhattan). From 1957 on I was paying close attention to the Civil Rights movement. I looked to see signs of discrimination in the North, and it was not too hard to find them. My parents tried to explain the difference between de jure and de facto segregation, but when I asked how it was any different to the Negro who could not get the job or buy the house, my parents had no answers. I remember sitting down and writing an imaginary story, where all the power was controlled by Negroes, and how they were denying rights to Whites. I was trying to show people how it might feel were the roles reversed. I was not a skilled writer, even for an 11 year old. Still, it marked another step on my path to opposing discrimination.
I will not detail all of the events of my secondary school years that relate to this topic. There are too many. I cannot say I was pure. I remember getting angry a a Saturday basketball game and calling another kid whom I did not know “you dirty Nigger.” The shock on his face brought me to my senses. But what shocked me more was that not one of my teammates, nor my coach -- all white -- corrected my behavior. That night, I wondered why the rules should be so different, that I as a white boy could be so nasty in my language and not be chastised, but I knew had he said something similarly derogatory towards me he probably would have been jumped by my teammates. His teammates had not defended him.
Of course, there was one Black in those basketball games no one would ever “diss” like that. Chris Brice as a 6th grader was far superior to all the 7th graders .. he would later be an All-County player in a county (Westchester, NY) of well over half a million people with something like 40 different high schools. So because of his gifts he was treated better than were most other blacks. I so this, and filed it away.
I knew only a few blacks well in high school. I Knew Nancy Goode because she played violin in the orchestra (where I played cello). I ran cross-country for two years with Sammy Shelton, our star. By high school it was not so unusual in at least some of my classes to have black students. I do not ever remember any of them being a guest in my home nor I in theirs. My circle of acquaintances (because I really did not have close friends) was largely limited to people who overlapped in my classes, or whom I knew from Larchmont Temple, either the Youth Group or the dancing classes taught by a couple named Barry. I also had a few friends from drama and music. There were both jews and Christians, and my parents raised no objections on the few occasions when I dated non-Jewish girls -- perhaps because I dated so infrequently they were just pleased to see me going out, and besides, they didn’t think anything would be serious.
The real diversity in my acquintanceships during this time was working class whites. I became ‘friendly” with a number of people for whom college was never considered a possibility. A guy named Roy a year ahead of me, he was going into the Air Force to work on jet engines. His (single) mother was a seamstress. And I was amazed to realize that there were people for whom college was not something they could consider. In the early 1960’s the community college route was not all that available, certainly not where we were. And if one were not in college, then at 1i8 one had to confront the reality one might as a male well be drafted. So iI began to perceive a very different world than that in which I was raised.
When I was considering colleges, and for a while expressed an interest in the Naval Academy (for which I would not have qualified), my mother strongly insisted that the Navy was no place for a Jew. When I then pointed at Admiral Rickover, she explained how much of an exception he was. Thus I did not tell my parents when I filed for Naval ROTC until after I had done. They reluctantly allowed me to apply to the requisite six universities and to take the exam, on which I did superbly. The issue of ROTC became moot when I took my physical because I was immediately washed out because of my eyes. I then was in the strange position of applying to 6 universities with NROTC, and little Quaker Haverford College.
One application was rejected because of my developing social conscience. The application for Indiana University in Bloomington required one to file for housing at the same time as one applied for admissions. I did not opt for a fraternity, already having something of a bias against such things - by high school I was already seeing things like Demolay (the junior Masons), that there were clubs in our town to which my family could not belong because we were Jewish, and so on. There had been an incident in nearby Scarsdale, which had a substantial and influential Jewish community, where someone had been barred as coming as an escort to a dance because he was Jewish. When the young minister of one of the local churches preached out against this he was summarily dismissed from this pulpit. I started to feel some level of solidarity with anyone against whom discrimination and prejudice were applied. And I had begun to learn far more about the Holocaust, sometimes from the parents of acquaintances, because my own family did not openly talk about it.
One question on the Housing application was “race.” I decided then and there I had only one answer I would give -- I did not check any boxes, but wrote in “human.” As I remember, the application was not accepted because it was considered incomplete. I refused to change it, and eliminated IU from my list of possibles.
When I visited Haverford in october of 1962 for my interview, while I was in the waiting room I read an article about a program that Haverford’s admissions guy, Archibald MacIntosh was doing with an admissions guy from Harvard (whom I vaguely remember was named John Miles, but don’t hold me to that after 43 years). They were seeking out students from the black community in the South and trying to help them get to integrated private colleges in the North. I devoured the article, and found a way to raise the issue during the interview. I think that helped get me in .. I really should not have been admitted, despite sky high boards, because I was not in the top 1/3 of my high school class. But that conversation caught Mac’s attention, and helped the College decide to take a chance on me. It probably didn’t hurt that I had brought down my early AP US History papers. Mac borrowed them and I later found out they were used to interview Roger Lane, now retired and who won the Bancroft Prize in History. It also didn’t hurt that I won a National Merit. But that conservation showed that I was concerned about people beyond myself, and at a Quaker institution like Haverford, that made a difference.
The summer I graduated from high school, 1963, I started to participate in Civil Rights demonstrations. I began with the White Castle hamburger chain, which refused to hire blacks. I also sat in at the private office Governor Nelson Rockefellar maintained in NYC, being replaced at that event about 5 minutes before the State Police arrested everyone for trespassing. Thus I narrowly avoided a criminal record. And from this participation, on August 28 of that summer I got on a bus and traveled to Washington DC. I was one of only 5 whites on a bus full of people from the Bronx Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)> My closest friend there was Willie, a Black about 3 years older than me who was quite bright and lived in Harlem. Several times I had stayed in his small apartment. And he and I together had met our hero while picketing, the head then of CORE, James Farmer.
The participation in the ‘63 March was a in important watershed for me. I met people from the Mississippi Delta who knew of no Civil Rights groups except NAACP. The were amazed that a white kid from the suburbs of New York City would care about what happened to them. I heard the speeches, I ran into people i had known years before. And I saw Wilt Chamberlain, who had come without fanfare and as a private citizen, walking quietly and holding a sign saying something like End Discrimination Now.
By the time I entered Haverford in the Fall of 1963, I had grown from being a kid from a comfortable, upper-middle class Jewish background in the NY suburbs, to someone who saw discrimination, began slowly to understand how it affected people, and who was coming to a point where he felt that he could not remain silent about such wrongs when he encountered them.