Mine was a typical United States family. Two of my mother’s relatives fought for the Union and two of my father’s for the Confederacy during the Civil War. My grandmother’s best friend was an ex-slave, Miranda Russell, and Grandma named her third child, my father, Russell after her. (Of course she gave him a middle name after her favorite writer — Edgar — as in “The Raven” Poe.) My father attended college on his football talents and his teammates were all African American as was most of his platoon in World War II. My family admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was twelve fifty years ago when he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. I remember sending folks from church to Mississippi to help with voter registration and holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” at camp. I desperately wished I were just a little bit older. My parents were … liberal, but didn’t see any need to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement living in the peacefully desegregated and surface-calm upper Midwest.
Everything changed. My father was a labor organizer and negotiator. In April 1968 he went to Memphis, Tennessee to write a contract for the Railway Brotherhood of Clerks. He couldn’t afford the hotel restaurant so he and his buddies decided to go down the street to a diner. They were four men — one from Cheyenne, Wyoming, one from Omaha, Nebraska, one from the Quad cities that straddle the Illinois/Iowa border and my father from Des Moines. They were all white men. When they finished dinner and walked outside, the road was filled with demonstrating African American sanitation workers involved in the strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis.
Blocked from their hotel, the four men asked for help from a policeman who was standing there, and he said – “You just follow me, boys.” Holding his billy club at head level, he started swinging and smashed a pathway clear for them. Their clothes became speckled with the blood of the strikers he hit. They were terrified of him and of the crowd and so like sheep they kept on walking. King was assassinated later that night, but my father was already changed.
Visitors to Memphis were sent on buses to the airport. The Railway Brotherhood finished their contract in Kansas City a month later.
When my father came home that night he told me this – it did not matter if I never had been prejudiced, it did not matter if I had never acted with intolerance or stood by intolerance silently. Even if I never used one bigoted word, the racism of this country was my personal responsibility. The path for me – the path of comfort and education and well-being – had been swept clear by the pain and blood of others — the native people the white colonists found here and the African people they dragged from their homes in chains. Because that path had been cleared for us, we were personally responsible until everyone could walk freely and with pride.
It motivated him in his own industry and the memory of his memory has never left me.