Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr’

Let Us Turn Our Thoughts Today To Martin Luther King

The centennial of the Civil War was being commemorated in 1962. Nelson Rockefeller was New York’s governor. Racism was matter-of-fact for most white American, whether overt or unconscious. So it took a certain amount of political courage for the Republican governor to select a controversial African-American like Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

No one had heard Dr. King’s speech for more than 50 years until last Fall when staff members of the New York State Museum in Albany discovered a long forgotten reel-to-reel tape.

You can listen to it here

November 22, 1963


November 22, 1963 was a Friday.

I was a typical shallow, self-possessed, care-free teenage male in the first couple months of my first year in high school at Mount Pleasant High in Providence, Rhode Island.

On Friday’s, my last class of the day was gym. In 1963, gym class for males was an active, athletic program to prepare young men for military service and which required students to develop skills on the parallel bars, pommel horse, horizontal high bar, still rings and for rope climbing. The gymnasium also served as the school’s basketball court, so the space was cavernous and the class was noisy. Consequently, we couldn’t hear messages being transmitted over the school’s loudspeaker system.

So, on that Friday, after I’d showered and walked along the typically noisy corridor to my locker, I was in a good mood and oblivious to what was going on around me.

I  was in a good mood because that night was scheduled to be opening night for the Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town” and my theater debut as a member of the stage crew manning the main spotlight.

My original plan had been to try out for the football team but, at the last moment, I wisely changed my mind. The football coach was also my Geometry teacher and, for some reason, there was an unsettling level of antipathy between us.

So, instead, I decided to join the theater group at the urging of my friend, Mike Grace. It was a decision that, to this day, I’m glad I made.

Arriving at my locker and fetching my things for the bus ride home to Smithfield, I was blithely mocking the sweet young woman I’d befriended whose locker was to my right. She was emotional and, because I couldn’t hear what she was saying, my initial thoughts were that she was laughing. But then I realized that it wasn’t the sound of laughter but of grief that I was hearing.

When I asked her what was wrong, I presumed that she was reacting to a misunderstanding or breakup with her boyfriend. The usual stuff of adolescent drama.  So, when she told me that the President was dead, it didn’t register. I laughed thinking that she was telling me some sort of sick joke. Then, I looked at her face…and I knew.

John F. Kennedy was a mythic figure in Southern New England. In 1963, Rhode Island’s population was heavily Roman Catholic Italian and, although JFK was Irish, he was one of our own.  His was like a death in the family.

The first reaction I can recall was wondering how this tragic event might affect the play.

Our theater group had worked hard, rehearsed and devoted much of our lives for the previous two months in order to be ready for this moment. The school wouldn’t cancel opening night, would it?

Other than the moment when I was told about the assassination and the overarching sense of loss and sadness which enveloped the school, there are two incidents that I most vividly remember about that afternoon. The first involved one of the wise guys who, like me, was bused in from Smithfield and with whom I’d shared classes since elementary school. He started laughing and making jokes about Kennedy’s assassination. I was appalled and, frankly, embarrassed for him.  Over the years, I’ve wondered if he sometimes stopped to consider how he’d reacted and, if he did, how that affected his life.

The second incident occurred when we discovered that the school administration had, indeed, canceled opening night for our production of “Our Town”. Of course, it was the appropriate decision under the circumstances. But, we were emotionally invested in our work and had difficulty accepting the decision. What shocked me was when the student who played George Webb, one of the play’s primary characters, lay down on the stage and while pounding his fist sobbed “Why did he have to go get killed on opening night?”  I understood the kid’s angst but found his self-absorbed attitude embarrassing.

The Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Players production of “Our Town” did go on as scheduled on Saturday night. And, as I recall, the show was well-received by an audience which was probably affected more than usual by the play’s story of day-to-day life, youthful love, premature death, sorrow and grief. That play continues to touch me to this day.

On Sunday afternoon, while continuing wall-to-wall commercial-free live coverage of the weekend’s sad events were being broadcast on the existing three television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), Mike Grace and I were doing a project for Mike’s aunt and uncle in the living room of their home when I happened to glance over at a TV and noticed the Dallas police escorting Lee Harvey Oswald down a corridor. It all seemed pretty mundane until, all of a sudden, a man in a black hat stepped out from the crowd, shoved his hand towards Oswald’s stomach and shot him. The black-and-white photo we’ve all seen over the intervening decades of Oswald crumbling in pain is still shocking. But, to see an actual murder occur live on a national TV broadcast as it happened was stunning. At first, it seemed unreal. And, thinking that I might be imagining it, I asked Mike if he’d just seen what I saw.

The 48 hours from the moment  when JFK was killed on Dealey Plaza until the moment when Jack Ruby’s bullets ended Lee Harvey Oswald’s life,  were surreal and shook America’s sense of order and complacency to its core.  This was a time in American life when we lived daily on the brink of nuclear holocaust in our conflict with the Soviet Union. We were all subconsciously concerned that, at any moment, we might get word that the missiles were coming in.

Leading up to this anniversary, journalists have been focusing on how coverage of the events of that weekend changed news because it was on TV. I would argue that it changed America.

For the first time, we were able to not only hear but to see events as they happened. Radio had provided us with theater of the mind. With TV, we were there…watching Jackie grieve at her husband’s coffin, watching little John-John salute the passing caisson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald murdered in cold blood.

On that weekend leading into Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays, we were shaken to the core.

When World War I began, we got our news on time delay via newspapers.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we learned the news from radio.

John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the first calamitous event which we Americans shared communally through television.

It remained the most significant historical event of my lifetime through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the late 1960s, the Kent State Massacre, the murder of John Lennon and other tragic events which we experienced through the years.

For me, a change began to occur when I watched the Challenger disintegrate as Dan Rather was covering its launch live in 1986. It became obvious to me that I was going to continue to witness these occasional tragedies through my remaining days.

Then, of course, came September 11th.




PS- A fellow Rhode Island native, Bill Flanagan, has an interesting insight on how the death of John F. Kennedy affected our parents who were his contemporaries in the World War II generation.

The Passage of Power

In this book, Robert Caro picks up Lyndon Baines Johnson’s where he left off in Master of Senate.  LBJ was nothing if not a complex person. Victim/bully/ champion of human rights/manipulative politician/devoted family man/adulterer.

Having grown up in predominantly Irish Catholic Southern New England during the 1960s, I was enamored with President Kennedy.  Unofficially, he was sanctified by the majority of New Englanders that I knew.  So, it’s disappointing to learn how the Kennedys and their colleagues treated Johnson. The Kennedys ridiculed and humiliated the man.

Bobby comes across as mean-spirited, self-centered, and a bit of a jerk.  I hadn’t realized that Bobby had been a staffer for Senator Joe McCarthy.  And there’s a scene where Bobby mocks then-Vice President Johnson at a dinner party by sticking pins in a Johnson voodoo doll. And Johnson, who was insecure in his VP role to begin with, feared that Bobby would thwart his ambitions to be the Democratic party’s presidential candidate in 1964 and 1968.

Early in this book, Caro reveals some behind the scenes details about the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Being a teenager who grew up in post-World War II America, I presumed that we had the situation under control and that everything would turn out alright. Apparently, we were a  lot closer to nuclear war and annihilation than I thought we were.  Fortunately, we lucked out.

The dominant theme for most of Caro’s book is the frustration that Lyndon Johnson felt during his time as JFK’s vice-president.  Another VP, who was marginalized by FDR’s charisma, John Nance Garner described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”. There’s little doubt that LBJ, who enjoyed using his power as Master of the Senate, agreed with that description of the vice-presidency.

The story in “The Passage Of Power” is far from boring. As the Washington Post’s reviewer writes: “In Caro’s account, LBJ comes across by turns as insecure, canny, bighearted, self-defeating, petty, brilliant, cruel and …domineering.” “Caro infuses his pages with suspense, pathos, bitter rivalry and historic import.”

The book contains interesting behind-the-scenes details about JFK’s selection of Johnson to be his running mate and about RFK’s efforts to thwart that decision. There’s also the story about how, after being denied the presidential candidacy and being offered the VP position, LBJ has staff members research how many presidents had died in office and, doing the math, calculates that the odds are in his favor that he might gain the presidency under those circumstances. Although Caro’s book cites authorities which make it clear that Johnson had no involvement in the JFK assassination, I have little doubt that the revelation of that particular anecdote is sure to fan the flames for conspiracy theorists.

For those of us who live through it, the story of the hours and days immediately following the events of November 22nd, 1963 are the most riveting part of this book.  Being the personality type who becomes calmer and more focused during times of crisis, I could relate to Johnson’s reactions during those chaotic hours at the hospital immediately following the assassination. Witnesses marvel at how calm and in control he seemed. We also learn the reactions of Bobby and the Kennedy staff who despised Johnson and their unfavorable interpretations of his behavior.  One gets the sense that, even when LBJ was trying his best to be sensitive the Kennedy group’s situation, he just couldn’t win.  And, of course, the fact that the assassination occurred in LBJ’s beloved Texas didn’t help the situation.

In Bill Clinton’s review of Caro’s book, he marvels at LBJ’s political skill and talks about how, after Johnson assumed the presidency, he determined to get JFK’s Civil Rights bill passed by Congress despite the strong opposition of his fellow Southern Democrats. LBJ was advised to avoid squandering the political capital he’d gained as a result of the assassination on a cause that seemed hopeless. But Johnson’s response was: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Clinton says that that’s the question that every president has to ask and to answer. To LBJ, during the final weeks of 1963, “presidency was for two things: passing a civil rights bill with teeth…and launching the War on Poverty.”  It’s LBJ’s knowledge, skill and expertise in schmoozing, bullying, and cajoling Congress which gets the legislation passed by the House and the Senate. One gets the sense that, had John Kennedy lived, his administration wouldn’t have been able to achieve those results. It’s an interesting hypothesis and, of course, an answer which we’ll never know.

One thing that struck me while listening to this audio book is the comparison of how different things were back then when a president and congressional majority leader could use their powers to withhold perks and powerful positions in order to control Congress and get legislation passed. Today, when Tea Party candidates aren’t interested in becoming “professional politicians” and are determined to undermine the legislative system, those tactics can no longer work.  So, I’m amused when I hear pundits criticizing our modern day president for not being able to control Congress under these circumstances.  One only has to look at John Boehner’s frustration at trying to control his GOP colleagues in the House to understand the dilemmas of American political leadership in the 21st century.

“The Passage Of Power” ends  as LBJ is deciding how the USA will proceed with its military efforts in Vietnam. His decisions about that war along with those of his successor, Richard Nixon were factors in creating the divisions between the Babyboomers and their parents’ generation and what Jimmy Carter described as our national “malaise” in the 1970s. As I finished this book, the thought struck me that the erosion of our attitude towards the presidency had its roots in Lyndon Johnson’s administration.




A Dream

MLK Jr. 2
Several years ago, I produced a half-hour public affairs program which aired on several different radio stations in New York State’s Capital Region on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King Day. While doing my research and listening to the speeches, I realized how much I didn’t know and appreciate about the man. Click on the picture below then click the play button to listen in.