I couldn’t see. The night fog was thick, and I was driving too fast. My guts screamed at me to stop, but I was more frightened of slowing down, knowing that somewhere behind me they were racing to catch us.
I searched for the edge of the road, the line in the middle, anything that would keep me from going off into the dark forest. The high beams only made it worse. More than fifty years later, I try to part my fog to recall those few days in April of 1968 that brought such a change in my life.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would never march again. Moses had been murdered in Memphis. Like the biblical Moses who led his people out of bondage, yet never crossed the Jordan, Martin Luther King Jr. had led his people, our people, from oppression toward equality, and was denied his crossing of the “Jordan.”
Pain and anger came over me as I watched the TV coverage. I had spent my time buried in my books while others marched over the bridges and past the biting dogs. I would enter medical school in a few months, and I knew that soon there would be no time for anything but study. I knew I had to do something now.
I don’t know what others at the University of Kentucky might have done, but I walked up to the door of a nearby Black fraternity house a few days later. I didn’t know anyone there. I rang the bell and told the person who answered that I had come because of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and asked if we could talk.
I told him I wanted to do something. After a long silence, he invited me in and called to a few of his fraternity brothers.
We sat in the front room. A fellow with a large Afro, who they called Fuzzy, asked me if I was “for real.” Soon they understood I had gathered my courage to open a new door in my life and maybe it was a new door in their lives too. After hours of discussion, we planned a campus-wide Memorial Service to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. through the Black Student Union. We needed a program, a speaker, a place, and publicity, and we needed to do it immediately.
The University of Kentucky gave us permission and the free use of an auditorium. We lined up great speakers from across the country to talk to us over an amplified telephone system. Julian Bond, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. A.D. Williams, Dick Gregory, and even Sammy Davis Jr. agreed to phone in.
I handed out fliers for the memorial service to students as they entered the quad. One student threw the paper to the ground and hatefully barked the worst words he would ever speak.
I was stunned. I had never looked directly into the face of such hate before. I wanted to hit him, to hurt him. That worried me.
There were a couple of hitches in the telephone hookups, and we only had a few hundred attendees, but we did something. I’ll never know if these men of the fraternity or the other students at the Black Student Union would have organized a Memorial program, but fifty years later, I recall with pride the day I did something, we did something together. I still have a copy of the press coverage in the UK student newspaper and in the Lexington Herald, May 1, 1968, in my scrapbook of treasures.
A few weeks later, Fuzzy asked me if I wanted to go with him to Washington, DC, to show support for Resurrection City. Organized by Coretta Scott King in May of 1968, the sit-in on the National Mall protested poverty in America. They vowed to remain until something was done for the poor. Thousands of people camped out or just came to visit and show their unity with the demonstrators. The story dominated the national news.
Fuzzy and I set out for Washington after class one Friday evening. We planned to take turns driving through the night. The back roads were curvy and almost deserted. I knew I was speeding but assumed the police wouldn’t be so far from the main roads this late at night.
People get to know each other when they share a long car ride. We couldn’t find any decent music, so we talked and learned about each other. We discovered that the life of a Black and a Jew had similarities but were very different. We both had suffered from discrimination, but not nearly the same. The physical appearance of a Jew might escape notice, but a Black person is recognized.
Late that evening we stopped for gas in Ohio on some deserted two-lane shortcut I had mapped out. We still had about a quarter of a tank but agreed to be safe and stop at the next gas station. I would not normally drive into such a run-down-looking place, but the lights were on and it was open. We filled up and bought some coffee and candy. That’s when they saw us. The faces of the two men made no secret of their dislike of a Black man with a big Afro and his white companion.
As I pulled out onto the road, I noticed headlights that followed me. My thoughts went to the “Stars and Bars” window decal and the rifle rack in their old pickup truck. As I accelerated, they accelerated. As I slowed, they slowed. Soon we entered a blinding night fog, swaying from one side of the road to the other. Driving this fast was crazy, but not as crazy as stopping.
I was frightened and so was Fuzzy. We talked about what we would do and how we would defend ourselves if they caught up to us. Fuzzy said he would rather die smashed against a tree than hanging from one. That made me recall civil rights workers Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner, a Black and two Jews who were murdered by the KKK one night in Mississippi four years ago.
It wasn’t going to happen to us as long as I could handle the wheel. I don’t know how long this race lasted. It seemed forever. Eventually, the headlights in the mirror grew smaller and finally disappeared. I suspect their fear of dying in the fog outweighed their hatred.
I felt safe after the haze disappeared and then asked Fuzzy to explain “Black Power.” The term had always sounded threatening.
He thought a moment and said, “They wouldn’t let you Jews into Miami Beach, right? So, you bought the damn place. That’s Jewish Power. Black Power is the same thing.”
We pulled into the DC area and drove to the home of Fuzzy’s sister and brother-in-law. He was a tall, handsome, ex-Air Force man, and like so many ex-military men, he was in good physical shape and was smartly dressed. He cheerfully greeted both of us. His wife was a bit more reserved.
I had never eaten or slept or even been inside the home of a Black person before. They made me feel completely welcome. I wonder if they felt any awkwardness in having a white guy stay in their home.
They had four children, two boys, and two girls. The youngest, a frisky girl about four years old with long pigtails, wanted to show me things, have me read to her, and giggled loudly when I tossed her into the air like my Grampa used to toss me.
Our brief pilgrimage to Resurrection City was meaningful to me, but I don’t feel I made much of a contribution to the fight against poverty. The bravest ones came for the duration and lived in tents made of four-by-eight plywood boards, attached at the top. They made bread in old coffee cans over open fires, sang songs of freedom, and played guitars. People welcomed each other with the half-raised clenched fist of unity in the pursuit of change.
I asked Fuzzy, “Why didn’t we camp here?”
“Are you crazy?” he answered.
Recent rains muddied the ground, and the Mall sanitary facilities were limited to a few porta-potties. Anyone who tolerated these conditions had to be a hero.
A little while before we planned to drive back to Lexington, I found myself alone with Fuzzy’s brother-in-law. We were waiting for the others to arrive to take a group picture. I mentioned how the youngest child was open and warm with me, but the three older kids, although polite and friendly, were somewhat standoffish. I felt as if there was a wall between us. I asked if it was something that I had said or done.
He hesitated, as if to organize his thoughts, and said: “She doesn’t know.”
I looked at him in confusion, wondering what he meant. I am ashamed to confess that my first thought was Santa Claus.
Clueless, I mustered up the courage to ask, “She doesn’t know what?”
The silence was painful as he looked at me in disbelief. “She doesn’t know she’s Black.”
Like a glass that shatters into a thousand pieces, an endless stream of thoughts rushed into my head. Oh my God, she didn’t know. She didn’t know she was Black. She didn’t know her skin color mattered. She never felt the pain of hatred. How does a parent explain hate to a child? Every Black parent has had to teach this awful lesson to their babies. Every Black child has had to learn it. Tears welled up in my eyes as I had a brief glimpse of what it meant to be Black. It was all I could do to stand there in silence trying not to lose it. I couldn’t talk.
His hug made it clear that words were not necessary.
I spent the next eight years consumed with my medical studies. The world changed. I changed, and yet some things remain the same. I still feel the emotions of that day and hold the lessons I learned. I still feel the embarrassment of not realizing what he meant by “she doesn’t know.” Who could be so blind?
I became an ophthalmologist dedicated to saving vision and yet, I have lived my life in the pursuit of blindness to color and race, the kind of color blindness that celebrates our differences without making judgments. I confess I’m not quite there yet, but I’m not finished either. I never learned how to cure hatred, but I never allowed hate to enter my life, my practice, and my duties as a father. In my sons, I see no hatred.
As a young man, I looked ahead and planned. As an old man, I look back and see that I could have done more. I never marched over a bridge or walked past a biting dog, but once I did a little something. In a small way, I stood up against hatred and bigotry. I doubt our student MLK Memorial or my trip to Resurrection City did much to help the Civil Rights Movement, but I know it lifted the fog from my eyes forever. I had long opposed the evils of racism, but the moment I felt the heartache that father felt, that little girl would soon feel, that all Black people endure, something within me changed forever.
I still have that family photo in my treasure book.
It saddens me to know my grandchildren could face the same fear Fuzzy and I faced. I am comforted knowing they are better prepared because they had parents who talked with them about the evils of hate. Change will come if we teach our children, one mother, and one father, at a time to do what they can to bring hatred to an end.