What Inspired My Social Justice Journey

Issue 50 by Michael McQuillan

What Inspired My Social Justice Journey

"I want them to see this," Mom cries, her body booming through as she hits Dad with a lamp. He, no angel, drags her by the hair from the car where I coil arms around my sister at another violent time. These episodes ignite lifelong trauma. I am now sixty-eight.

An atheist's son, I pray. Eyes face bedroom door. Intense staring notes decorative perimeter lines, in and out alignments of hinges and other inconsequential details of the woodwork's design. Will it shield my sister and me? Her quilt wrap comforts as she curls within a bunk bed clenching her eyes so, she hopes, no one can see her. This is real, no hide-and-seek, our parents fight again.

Dad asserts that "all's well" to a police officer neighbors call. What if Dad is arrested? What if he stays? I fret, ashamed of what's happened. I reject frontier justice but I'm afraid to speak up.

The Northern Irish love of justice Dad’s ancestors bequeath becomes my beacon light. His tales of union organizing as a merchant seaman on Brooklyn's Red Hook docks model righteous deeds I dream of performing.

The tender warmth of Dad's hand in mine plus his hours talking history, hitting me grounders I scoop up or dive for, and sharing Wednesday night hockey games from the old Madison Square Garden's two-dollar balcony transmit masculine love. It's symbolic sunshine through clouds. I forgive his transgressions.

He knocks me down for interrupting him taking Jones Beach bathing suit pictures of Mom, his palm's forehead imprint a psychic Scarlet Letter that I'll decades later discuss with my therapist.

Mom's fluent French phrasings, Italian stylish dress and love of study abroad – having spent months in Europe – broaden my childish horizons when her rage is contained. The discovery of a nineteenth century Larousse Encyclopedia that she can buy cheaply at a country library's used book sale enchants her. Its appeal puzzles me. Her joy moves me.

Dad leaves his do-gooder role to create Madison Avenue ad copy for Ballantine Beer, Bosco Chocolate Syrup and the original "Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should" campaign. He becomes a major firm's chief writer. A scrapbook I compile of his work earns his pay raise but he regrets this career. Once a ship's electrician, he envies men who work with their hands.

I indelibly glimpse President Kennedy in a Broadway motorcade and make him my symbolic father. I memorize his Inaugural Address to recite at a school assembly, impressed that at his triumphant moment he invokes "a celebration of freedom" not self and calls us to serve our country, aware that God's work on earth must truly be our own."

Actions speak for me in teen years. At seventeen I don a peace necklace that I still wear, and am still told is "timely." I chip in with classmates from the Bronx High School of Science for a school bus to join five hundred thousand people for the Vietnam Moratorium at the Washington Monument, protesting war – while a hostile divorce ends war at home. It's clear now that I kept distant from friends, girding for adult independence. A sense of purpose defines me.

I leave for school before dawn, drill into homework till dinner. Johnnie Ehrenfeld and I root the Knicks to a championship. We sleep outside Shea Stadium to buy playoff tickets for the '69 Miracle Mets and shred the Sunday New York Times during batting practice to use as confetti. "Everything's wonderful!" Johnnie cries on the packed 7 train home when they've won. I frown; my family is coming apart.

Student government and the West Side Democratic Club channel my anxieties. I yearn to impact events, eyes open for clues. Congressman William F. Ryan, a Manhattan liberal, makes time for me as I get out the mail. His questions clarify what I intend: to change something significant to help others as an elected official. I declare that I, too, will get somehow to Washington; Mom took me by train as a blue-suited seven-year-old to see the White House and Capitol (Dad later confided that she hadn't told him she would or that we would spend the weekend away).

Deciding my sister will be safer with Dad than Mom, I see a lawyer to sign legal papers to grant custody before I board a plane for St. Louis and college. A few guys on the flight like me wonder what to do when we land. We team up to find ground transportation to campus.

Dad remarries in Biloxi, Mississippi, launching an ad business that he says will last if it survives the first year. He swears I must keep his address and phone number secret from Mom, but insists that I stay in touch as her lifeline. I ping-pong between them. I call her often and on school breaks trade trying stays with seeing New York friends and Knicks games. Book and travel talks deteriorate after dinner. The wine wears her down. You betrayed me, she screams. I steer her, gradually, to her bedroom, where she'll stay once inside. She's always refreshed and friendly next morning – except for the chilling time of dagger eyes and cutting comment: "I haven't forgotten last night."

I grocery-shop with our Biloxi stepmother to affirm my trust that she'll care for my sister (who abruptly also has stepsisters). I visit alone to assess. Her kindness strikes chords with her warm laughter welcome. I am serious from circumstance, intent on saving my family and then changing the world.

The cosmopolitan Mississippi Gulf Coast, halfway between New Orleans and Mobile, has racism beneath a veneer of verbal courtesies, a town hall on comparative school funding reveals. With wide-open eyes I sense deeper truths. There is only one right side of the railroad tracks that split the community.

Mom's mental health troubles me despite the success of her high school French teaching career. Her principal extols her service when he notes my last name at a conference. I'm in awe and relieved. She is admirably devoted to students, he says.

She's different at home where she harangues me in long distance phone calls as I knit her neighbor friends into a coping team for her periodic suicide threats. Another form of justice is to do right by Mom. I commit myself to it. Dad stays scarce except when I call from the dorm pay phone on St. Louis Sundays to stay close to him and my sister.

A Political Science major bent on running for the Presidency JFK called "the center of action," I study hard, play intramural sports, and lead a two-year Students for McGovern campaign at Washington University, coordinating phone banks and rally crowds. We will meet in the future and I will serve on his staff, his example proving that a prominent public official can retain his humanity.

My glove spears the lightning bolt that is my audition grounder to become a crack softball team's shortstop. I pause in awe but act nonchalant. I am a lockdown defender though a lousy shot on Dr. Doom's Daredevils, a terrible basketball team but sight to see on fast breaks with shoulder length hair flowing from headbands. Still serious, I am shy at postgame outings. I am willing myself toward my goals.

No family member asks how I feel as I parent others. It will be a long time before I can figure it out.

"I stand on a dime between past and future," I will tell a therapist in my thirties. "You'll find you've got feelings, still as raw as in childhood," she'll say. The reality when it comes overwhelms, with suicidal thoughts and depression that therapy, medication and my wife's steadfast support see me through.

Adopting my parents' work ethic with elementary age special needs students enables me to pay college tuition, with a rental share in rundown lodging where I sleep in the dining room for a discount.

Leveraging a Dean's support for year-long thesis research overcomes my advisor's objection that "it's never been done before." It earns the degree's final credits, preserving the elementary school job, a safe haven that through three years matures me. I've grasped how to deal in the world on my own.

A Boston flight and Lexington, Massachusetts, cab ride to the Kennedy Library's interim warehouse site access boxes of private 1960 campaign papers worth more than gold for my college thesis comparing the Kennedy and McGovern races.

Missouri Senator Stuart Symington invites me to a Washington interview that he cancels after I save up, book a hotel room, fly from St. Louis and restlessly wait an hour in the reception room of his suite. "What did you want to see me about?" he barks from the massive flag-framed desk on his room's far side. His Eminence approaches to usher me out as I enter. "This young man is going to write me a letter," he proclaims next door to his secretaries, a condescending arm crossing my shoulders.

Abruptly I'm out in the hall, cheeks burning, head high. Symington was a JFK rival, a McGovern colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I want this interview. He won't get off easy. I won't leave until I know what to do. I plop my body and bag on the Russell Senate Office Building's bright marble floor. I lean against the wall's woodwork to ponder my options, glaring back at staring onlookers. It's my game face. I play to win.

The eureka moment: I scrawl beneath the signature on the Senator's invitation letter that "I've come to work within the system as you have urged young people to do, but you won't let me. You are literally blocking the door. I am here for serious research at my own expense and deserve your respect." Symington's chief of staff spots me on the hall floor; "Is everything all right?" he asks. I reply, "Not yet but it can be." I hand him the letter and ask him to make sure it meets Symington's eyes. Pissed off at him, I'm proud of myself as I head for the airport.

Symington's written apology says we'll have lunch whenever I am in Washington. I appreciate his courtesy but seek information not lunch, I reply. As a student I had saved to arrange this one research trip; a costly return is impossible. Might we meet in his St. Louis headquarters on the next Senate recess?

I am sleeping in at 8 a.m. on a Sunday when the Senator's commanding phone voice asks, "Can you be at my office in thirty minutes?" "Of course," I exclaim. Hair tousled, I stand in my underwear. Gracious, he offers coffee and "a more comfortable chair" than my choice on arrival. I am well-dressed, alert and prepared. Our interview is long and productive. I finish the thesis and send him the seventy-five pages with thanks.

Stanley Fike, his top aide, calls late on a Saturday night to ask about my post-diploma plans. "Write me a letter, refer to this conversation, state a minimum salary," he says. "I can't promise something but will see what I can do." After forty-six years, a carbon copy of the letter that got me to Washington lies on a cabinet shelf as an artifact.

Operating a Capitol elevator each morning earns smirks from friends: That's what you'll do with a college degree?" "Your job has ups and downs!" tourists laugh. Making it work, I don't buy into put-downs. Journalists I befriend tip me off to key Senate votes so I can time my twenty-minute break to watch from the gallery. "May I delay you long enough to shake your hand?" I ask when Senator McGovern rides with me. "I'd very much like to see that document," he charitably says of my thesis. My follow-up letter earns an appointment. Five years later I will serve on his staff.

The Senate Engineer requires that I master a small portrait book to recognize all one hundred Senate members on sight. They are temperamental, he warns. Texas Republican John Tower, known for three-piece black suits, white cowboy hat and small frame, was unknown to an elevator operator who told him to wait since he was expecting a Senator. "Hold on, cowboy," he said to the impatient Tower, who the next morning had him fired.

I spend afternoons with Symington's senior staff in his office, introducing myself and volunteering to receive extra work when done with my duties. I prove myself and pay dues. Vivian Moore accepts my offer and mentors me. The office manager will approve my covering her desk by myself for two weeks over Christmas as we stay busy. I handle veterans' issues with accessing health care and benefits. Agency inquiries, legislative research, correspondence and phone work fill days.

I ask for my own full-time role when one opens. A legislative aide position soon lands me among senior staff at my own massive oak desk with its telephone and IBM Selectric typewriter. "Put everything I should read in my hands," I tell the Senate Document Room's clerk's when it is my turn in line at the Capitol. I stagger back, arms laden with committee hearing transcripts, the Congressional Record and bills. Energy and Environment issues are mine.

Senator Symington soon has my memos. Men don jackets and hike up their ties when they're called in to see him. My sleeves are rolled up with tie loose and collar unbuttoned as they are when I work. He is not one for small talk. I am always prepared for discussion.

"You're destined for great deeds," Mary Ward, a much older colleague, declares. "Can you feel it?" I nod politely, respecting her service while aware that at twenty-three I am just starting out. Looking over my shoulder at the illuminated Capitol dome as I stroll home at night bolsters my pride, but historic Pennsylvania Avenue hides blighted sections that cry out for attention. It excites me to be climbing a ladder but disturbs me that overflowing in-boxes keep us distant from the people we serve.

A Fenton, Missouri, man writes often about how we might meet his town's needs. I take him seriously, look into the issues, call him to relay information and to hear more of his thoughts, then draft substantive Symington letters.

Colleagues are dismissive when they mention this man. I defend when they call him a blowhard. Why won't we praise his initiative?

Senator Symington's 1977 retirement dissolves my dream job but life's fluctuations draw me closer to the people for whom I believe in democracy. Eager to stay on in government, I spread resumes through Congress in vain. At wit's end with bills due I answer the Washington Post's classified ad for day labor. “A good attitude,” says the foreman to the phone call that asks what to bring.

Can one keep up is what matters through weeks of bricklaying, carpentry and house clearing among strapping mixed-race men whose actions evince blue collar love. “You are very much welcome,” Andre calls back, for swift crowbar strokes easing my struggle to shatter floorboards before a room renovation. I hadn't asked but was grateful for help. He's a muscular six-three professional. I'm a resolute five-seven novice.

“You touch others more from the person you are than the things that you do,” says a Korean soldier I teach at a college in the Peace Corps. His insight shapes my stateside organizing with the NYPIRG Citizens Alliance at social action scenes like the law-breaking ghetto market a Queens, New York, consumer boycott improves; Senator McGovern’s last South Dakota reelection race coordinating a four-county voter canvass to stem the New Right's “Target McGovern” assault; or among Peace Corps alumni in Nicaragua to research the realities of Sandinista governance during President Reagan’s public lies and illegal Contra War against it. A State Department official admits to me that the Sandinista Literacy Campaign's United Nations award was deserved.

A December 1986 news flash electrifies: "A white gang with baseball bats attacked two Black men in Howard Beach last night…" The Panel of Americans, a not-for-profit group I direct, does anti-bias workshops in schools; it's a way in, I decide. I'll help, I tell contacts with the Queens Borough President and New York City Human Rights Commission, before I know what I can offer. Two trains and a bus take me to the protest at the crime scene. My family and I are due at an aunt and uncle's anniversary gathering, but I must first add my white face to the thousand people passing the pizzeria where the twelve attackers had first seen the victims. Outside it, locals scream racial slurs and threats as we march.

"I wonder how I will get to my car when this ends," Stanley Whing confides. Stan, the Commission's Field Director, is Black. I am white. "Don't worry, Stan. I won't leave you alone," I assure him as I wonder what the hell we will do if someone follows us. Thank God no one does.

We mobilize community leaders to craft healing strategies as the Concerned Citizens of South Queens, recruiting a prominent African American pastor and Italian-American restaurant owner as the coalition's co-chairs. The Queens Borough President, Claire Shulman, awards a $25,000 grant for my proposed antiracism workshops in three area high schools that the Howard Beach attackers attended. That leaders seem more concerned with the neighborhood's reputation than improving relations upsets me. I will learn that it's normal.

When Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden at a press conference endorses a "Six-Point Program to Improve Race Relations" that I wrote from frustration, I persuade his chief of staff that I should oversee it as his Advisor on Racial/Ethnic Affairs.

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe's entourage in August 1991 runs a red light in Crown Heights killing one Caribbean American child while harming another, provoking three days of violence and a retaliatory killing, I mediate between factions to launch a Crown Heights Coalition. I guide its strategy, manage its inquiry and write much of its public report. Although each side claims that the other has had preferential treatment we find that the community as a whole has been underserved.

Listening, as I wished Dad and Mom had to me, has added others' perspectives to mine. My wife, a high school social worker, taught me how to reflect back what I heard. Learning to perceive nonverbal cues and to read between lines helped me draw out folks deserving more from the land of the free and home of the brave that defaults on the allegiance I pledged as a child.

“Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery,” President Kennedy told the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 1963. He was dead two months later, but his words resonate now. We are the world's richest but not greatest country. Kennedy's successors have functioned from fear with endless wars our lot.

$2.7 billion now has the Rover on Mars to seek ancient microbial life signs despite growing police violence, homelessness and hunger here on Earth. Four hundred and five nuclear-tipped missiles sit in the silos of our Western states, to defend or to dominate as we assert Russia and China intend.

Where is the love?

The dichotomy of physical and moral distance has magnified throughout our society. The Capitol, with 30,000 workers confined in post-9/11 and post-Insurrection security has become its own remote city, no longer "the people's house" that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauds.

Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee Chair, represents my Brooklyn district in Congress but ignores comments I place in his website's required "contact box" or snail mail. The Committee, Nadler tells MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, will consider blocking Attorney General William Barr's office expenditures to force his hand on releasing the unredacted Mueller Report – but I question the plan's worth in the Trump term's late stage.

I reach Nadler's New York scheduler in Manhattan after calling Washington and Brooklyn staff members. "He's too busy to see you at all," she says, though I make clear that I will come at his convenience for even five minutes at any time or place.

I look back in old age aware that I haven't changed the world as I felt sure I could. Stories like mine seem self-serving in a fast-paced youth culture. Yet mine has a memorable moral integrity. "You practiced what you preached about confronting injustice," students said when I exposed our corrupt high school principal late in my nineteen-year teaching career.

Hearing an 11th grade student I taught two years ago before I retired swear her generation can solve the racism that murdered George Floyd and the rage of the Capitol Insurrection suggests I lit a spark. If so, dear reader, please nurture the flame, shield it from wind, then share it with others. "Be the change you want to see in the world," Gandhi urges.

We can do this.

If not now, when?

About the Author

Michael McQuillan

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Michael McQuillan, former US Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, taught history and chaired the NYPD Training Advisory Council's Race Subcommittee in the aftermath of Eric Garner's death. Mike writes often for the History News Network, Harlem World Magazine and his blog. The Write Launch has published his Creative Nonfiction.