When I was a kid in DC and in Silver Spring in the ’40s and ’50s, and early ’60, we used to call them “colored people.” Or sometimes far worse. Old Jews would call them “Schvartzuhs,” which just means “blacks” in Yiddish.
They lived in slums and cabins. There were cabins less than a mile from where I went to Montgomery Hills Junior High School in Silver Spring where colored people lived and the cabins did not have indoor plumbing. They were not allowed to live in white neighborhoods and until 1956, not to go to white schools in Montgomery County.
The only black at our beautiful Parkside Elementary School was Willie. He was the janitor. He got up before dawn in his shack in upper Montgomery County, rural then, to drive to Parkside to shovel coal into the furnace so we white boys and girls would be warm.
Yes. I know I’ve written about him before.
The colored people wore rags and they jumped in the fountains in front of Union Station to keep cool on hot days. They didn’t have air conditioning. They worked at menial jobs, except for in the federal government where they could have real jobs at desks. I can well recall the black man who worked next to me at a Marchant calculator at the Civil Service Commission’s Pension Building at my first office summer job in 1962. I liked him a lot. He talked about how much of his family budget went for hair cuts for his kids. Even then, when I was 17, I realized he must live on a budget so strict that it would have been unimaginable to me. The office did not have air conditioning and we all smoked. It was stifling but my black neighbor was always up and cheerful. He was getting paid $63 a week and he was happy.
I can remember the black people I waited on when I was selling shoes at the Shoe Giant in Langley, Maryland, at a job that my old pal, Marvin Goldberg, got me. They were delightful to work with. Never unpleasant, not once.
The way it worked in the South then, and Maryland was the South then, was that there were the white Christians and they were the bosses. Then there were the colored people and they were the servants and the white people didn’t hate us Jews so much because they reserved that anger and fear for the blacks.
I can remember when colored adults stepped off the sidewalks in Silver Spring to let white people by.
Most of all I remember thinking that if I woke up one morning and was of color, I would rather kill myself than have to live as a colored kid.
That was shameful and disgraceful and just plain horrible. Just a humiliation to America and to humanity.
We celebrate this weekend the triumph of a genuinely great man, Martin Luther King, Junior, who did huge amounts to lift blacks out of the dust. He and his colleagues, many of them ultra-left wingers, some Communists, worked to make the lives of black people bearable.
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. Medgar Evers. MLK. How many died in the cause. My wife and I worked in the cause of black rights in Cambridge, Maryland and New Haven.
Now, I feel if I woke up and were black I would be very surprised but my life would go on pretty much as before when I was not black. That is an American triumph. The membership chairman at the Poinsett Club in Greenville, SC, is a black man. Triumph.
But to think that this genuine hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., was taken from us by a sniper’s bullet in 1968, when there was still so much work to do: that’s a tragedy on the scale of losing Lincoln.
Anyway, mourning MLK is the order of the day today.
God bless his soul.
Speaking of blessed, there is my wife, the saint of saints. She has been extremely ill for months and lately has been recovering. Yesterday, while I was at my 12 step meeting, this paradigm of human goodness used up all of her strength to make me my favorite dish, herb baked chicken.
When I got home, she was totally exhausted. But she presented her magnificent chicken. She could barely stand but she had made that herb baked chicken just like my mother used to make. It was heavenly. I was exhausted and rested in the living room for a while and she cleaned up. I would have done it but she did it. And to think that I, the most miserable sinner, have Alexandra Denman, the goddess of goddesses, as my wife — it’s a miracle.
Thank God for Alex and thank God for Martin Luther King, Jr. Thank God for America, the most blessed place on this earth but there is still a lot of work to do.