Wednesday, November 12, 2008

U.S. Election Night 2008 - Flashes of My Life Came Before Me

Watching the U.S. election returns on Tuesday night, November 4, 2008, brought many flashes of memories and experiences into my frontal lobes from 76 years. They, whoever they are, say your life flashes before you before you die. Well, what I know is that night my life flashed before my eyes and I am alive. They are vignettes.

From my childhood In Pleasantville NJ in 1940 when I could visit a black friend in his house and he could visit me, but he was not allowed in our house; I did not understand why. I traveled with the Wildwood High School (NJ) basketball team and every year in certain communities we would have windows broken on the bus because we had black players.

In college I did sports broadcasting for the four years. We went to Annapolis MD to broadcast a game between Gettysburg College and the Naval Academy. The only black student in Gettysburg was with me. We were not allowed to eat anywhere in Maryland together so we did not eat.

In seminary a black friend from Pleasantville NJ and I worked on a model mission to South Philadelphia, poverty, racism, prostitution, unsafe housing, no employment but near the University of Pennsylvania. He was a friend of my childhood friend who was then a cop. The model served as the way I started a community center in Camden NJ about 5 years later. Both friends are now dead.

I was almost fired from my first clergy job in Grace Church Plainfield NJ in 1958. My boss was on vacation in Nova Scotia and I was left in charge. On one Sunday I preached on the question why there were two Episcopal Churches in the small community of Plainfield, one white, one black, and how can we begin to worship together. Before the service was over my boss was on the phone waiting for me. He asked what happened. I told him. He said yes that is basically what he heard. He said some of the leaders wanted him to fire me. He then told me he was not coming back over this issue and to preach about whatever God and I decided. So I did it again the next week. The ceiling never caved in.

On April Fool’s Day, 1959 I moved to Camden NJ to work in an inner city church. Camden: too many mountain top experiences, too many sadnesses to write here. I started the community center across the street from the church, a huge building, a half-block long, three stories high with a gymnasium, library and rooms everywhere. It became a center for children and youth and for inner city adults, my neighbors, working on community issues.

The flashes include being on the Civil Rights March in 1963 in Washington DC and listening to Dr. Martin Luther King preach. There must have been 50 speeches that day, but only one conquered us. I heard an earlier version of the speech that he gave in Detroit, but he was under the spirit that bright sunny day in Washington DC and it became a hymn. He gave us all a dream. We knew we could realize it. But as decades past the dream stayed a dream.

JFK's death. King's death. Bobby Kennedy's death. Each was a different experience. When JFK was shot I was driving a parishioner for her brother to enter a rehab center in Princeton. When we arrived no one was in the reception room. That is when we three learned of it.

Martin and Bobby's deaths I was in Camden and I opened the church for anyone to use. We had an impromptu service for each and the church was almost filled both days by folks who did not go to our church. The neighborhood mourned there those two days, however. We did together. Many civil rights marches. The Camden riot. Speaking before Senate and House committees about Camden and urban renewal. Blocking I-76 from coming into Camden until there were protections for a public housing complex and competent relocation of families throughout the region, not just in the inner city.

Changing dim light bulbs in tenements from 25 watts to 100 watts. We did it because it made sense. The hallways were dark, the stairs dangerous, the tenants black and Hispanic families. If the landlord removed them we replaced them.

The church was all white, suburbanites coming back to the old neighborhood, when I started work there. The church was a white spiritual doughnut hole in a black and Hispanic poverty community. After I started the community center with their help in 1960, we saw black and Hispanic people begin to come to church. Then regularly. I started a new custom of greeting each other with a fold of the hands over the others in the form of a cross. White, black, Hispanic touched each other. I held a jazz mass. Black jazz musicians.

Black power. A description of a people changed from Negro to black to African American in a flash it seems. I remember being trailed by Camden police wherever I went with black kids or adults in the car. I remember riding shotgun with a sheriff many nights. He was Arnold Cream, a hero of mine from high school. He was also known as Jersey Joe Walcott, former heavy weight champion of the world. We were friends in Camden.

I remember he and some federal employees worked with me to bring H. Rap Brown, later Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, to the community center to speak. He was wanted for federal offenses at the time. Brown was sneaked into Camden and out by black law enforcement and federal officials. He was a leader of the militant black power group, the Black Panthers. And he was a hero in the black community. He is now in prison on a homicide conviction. He was a wonderful speaker.

Minister Malcolm X came to Camden in 1965. I heard him preach and he was phenomenal. I was one of a few white people there, escorted straight to the front of the convention hall by a Muslim Guard. He entered the stage to a standing and tumultuous greeting. He looked around the auditorium and then said, I hear there are some white people here today but I cannot see them for all the beautiful color. The place went over the top! I never felt fear or apprehension. I was with neighbors and friends, why should I? I also met him for a brief talk. Weeks later he was assassinated.

My oldest daughter was with me through most of these events. I was a single parent.

I remember meeting after meeting in our house with African American and Hispanic and white leaders talking about the present and the future of Camden through the 1960s - one eventually became governor of NJ; another became the first minority/Hispanic on the Federal Court in NJ. I learned so much at the feet of black women who wanted so much more for themselves, their children, their community, their country. At that time we were simply trying to get a minority on city council. We did, the brother of the future judge.

It was an exciting and vibrant and hopeful time. But president...? Not even in our vocabulary.

Now there are and will be children who will grow up thinking that having a black president is a norm.

I have been enriched for these and so many experiences as a clergyperson and a lawyer with legal services programs in low-income communities over 76 years. I looked back on election night and I rejoiced. I have seen history in the United States through a kaleidoscope, not simply in black and white.

My family participated at one level or another for Barack Obama. My wife, her family and I in New York, My oldest daughter, an attorney, in New Jersey. My middle daughter (who came home from Korea where she teaches) in North Carolina. My youngest daughter (where she is completing her masters in journalism) at the University of Oregon. My granddaughter (in her third year at Penn State before heading to study in Argentina) in Pennsylvania. All blue states this election.

The flashes of light from 76 years, but only a portion. Unto the second and third generations.

1 comment:

Ruth Wahtera said...

Thank you, Don, for sharing those memories. They triggered many of my own. Lots of highs, lots of lows, much community sharing.

I find it fun to try to imagine what the next 50 or 60 years will bring.

Web 2.0 is shrinking the world. It's already easier to communicate with someone thousands of miles away whose views we share than with someone down the street with different views.

I hope we rise to the challenge and commit to keeping all the conversations going. You're brief "flashes" highlight how important it is. Thanks again.

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