I wish I had been born five or ten years earlier. I’m a baby boomer, born not long after the end of the second World War. I lived through some of the most turbulent times in American history: the assassination of President John F Kennedy and of his brother Robert Kennedy, and that of Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who forced America to end segregation of black skinned from white skinned people. I was eleven when President Kennedy was killed, and sixteen when Dr. King was murdered. Dr. King’s death rocked my world. For the first time in my young life, I looked into the face of evil, the evil of white supremacy and racial hatred.
I grew up a white kid in a white town in western Pennsylvania. Minorities for us were the two Jewish kids in town. Three of the four elementary schools were Catholic, as was one of the two high schools. I didn’t think we were prejudiced. We just didn’t have any black families in town. It wasn’t our fault they didn’t want to live there, right?
When I was little we used to see “fresh air kids”, children from disadvantaged families in the mysterious big city that I had never seen. The kids came to spend a summer in the fresh country air, staying with a host family. We’d see them with their summer guardians, their eyes big with fear, and my mother would point at them, call them pickaninnies and make fun of their kinky hair. Other people would point, too, and murmur. Those poor kids must have felt like an exhibit in a zoo.
My high school sociology teacher decided that we needed to see more of the world than the view afforded by our small mountain town, so he invited a friend to come speak to us. His friend was a very successful black businessman. Two days before he was to come, someone burned a cross on a hill outside of town. My mother lobbied to have the teacher removed from the school, and soon he was gone. That’s why when Dr. King was murdered my young world was so shaken. I had seen the face of evil, the face of bigotry, and it was living in our house.
Had I been born a few years earlier, would I have had the courage to join the Civil Rights movement and fight for equality for all people in my country? Would I have been a freedom rider, or been part of the March on Washington? Would I have had the courage to tell my mother how wrong she was? I don’t know. How can you ever know until you face the moment? I was only sixteen and far removed from anywhere.
I’m an introvert. I don’t like conflict. I’m horrible at confrontations. Yelling and fighting makes me shrink away and hide. But I do know I’m really good at speaking up for and defending someone else. Would I have done the same then?
I can think of two other introverts who changed the world just by sitting still and not fighting. One was Gandhi, who freed an entire nation. The other was Rosa Parks, a quiet little woman who was tired and didn’t want to walk all the way to the end of the bus where the “colored” people sat. Her act of sitting got her arrested and fueled many other protests in America. So introverts can be heard and bring about change just by sitting and being quiet. I can only hope I would have been one of them.
Written in response to WordPress’ daily prompt: Break the Silence.