History at the Doorstep.

Martin Luther King Jr. and wife Coretta lead the march into Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the march which began on March 21, 1965, in Selma and reached Montgomery four days later.

A blog, at least a blog like this one, is a series of essays, on different subjects. I can vary the style, the tone, the narrative voice, however I like, whenever I like, without risking the fragmentation of some larger narrative. In theory, there is no larger narrative.

But of course, in the end, that’s nonsense. We all have a larger narrative. Everything we do, everything we fail to do, or choose not to do, is all part of a story that we are telling. We may or may not have any control over the direction the plot is taking, and we may not even be aware of the plot as it has unfolded so far, but it is there. Plot, and character development, and conflict. Even events of which we are completely unaware can have a major impact on our own personal story.

On yesterday’s date — March 21 — in the year 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr, and 3,200 civil rights demonstrators began their march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, about fifty miles away. I was just about to turn seven years old at that time, and was living in Montgomery, on Gunter Air Force Base, where my father was serving the final year of his military career. I attended school at Capitol Heights Elementary, blocks from the intended destination of the march, riding the bus into town from the base, five days a week, along with an assortment of other Air Force brats.

Sitting in Miss Burkett’s second-grade class, in the damp March chill of that cavernous old school, we knew nothing of what was happening such a short distance away. The civil rights movement approaching along Highway 80 was virtually non-existent: for us the Vietnam War, thousands of miles away, was far more immediate, more personal. Our fathers, brothers, uncles all were serving, or had served, or were about to serve: my father had only returned from “overseas” the year before. We all knew how to find Saigon on a map, but none of us could have told you what a “minority” was. At that age, even if someone had attempted to explain what was going on out there on the highway, none of it would have been the least bit comprehensible to us: not only were we insulated from the racial tensions of the time by the sheer grinding efficiency of institutional segregation, we were military, separated even further by the strange, un-rooted nature of our presence there.

I was born in Montgomery but I was not of Montgomery: My life — my narrative — took me from a maternity ward on Maxwell Air Force Base to Gunter, just a few miles across town, by way of Biloxi, Mississippi; Syracuse, New York; and Boaz, Alabama. The dirt on my feet wasn’t local clay, but the concrete dust and road tar of the base. I didn’t talk like the local kids; I didn’t wear my hair like the local kids; my mother made me wear shoes to school even in May, when local boys shed their boots and shuffled in and out of class barefoot. There were no black kids riding on my bus. There were no black students in my class.

History happened during those last couple of weeks in March, but my narrative, the story that I was living, somehow ran under or over or past those great events without the slightest overlap. I was only a child: I never had a clue. The civil rights movement, however, was not hindered by my ignorance of it, and that slow march eastward toward immortality changed the world I lived in.

A Pew Research Center survey1 taken last year showed that 12% of Americans still believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. The largest numbers were, predictably, among white Evangelical Protestants, especially at lower education levels.

Yesterday a questioner at a Newt Gingrich get-together in Louisiana referred to Barack Obama as a Muslim: Gingrich made no effort to correct him; such lapses are politically useful to him. The rhetoric of “them” still dominates our culture: economic problems are due to someone else’s arrogance or incompetence; there’s a liberal agenda, a gay agenda, an atheist agenda, a right-wing agenda, that can all be blamed for whatever we don’t like about our world, because these narratives are all about someone else’s lives, someone else’s mistakes, a less legitimate story of how things are than the one we’re living.

The questioner in Louisiana was a fool. Barack Obama’s religious affiliations have been examined and debated to the point of absurdity; anyone still clinging to the idea that the president is a Muslim (and really, why should that even matter?) is simply using religious prejudice as a cover to justify racial prejudice, lying to himself in order to avoid facing his own real motivations and his own fears and insecurities about the life he’s made for himself. Gingrich, to his discredit, chose to manipulate that narrative, rather than try to help bring that man into reality, where he might have a chance to really do something about the things that are embittering him, rather than blaming “them” for somehow poisoning his life.

History doesn’t care that you’ve chosen to withdraw, to pretend that the world is something other that it is.┬áThe procession will arrive at the capitol steps whether you choose to see it or not.

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One thought on “History at the Doorstep.

  1. I found your account of the Civil Rights march very interesting…told from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old who was close to history but wasn’t aware of it. You mentioned that we were insulated because of being military. So true. My family was insulated from the Great Depression because of being military. I was also a part of history – at age 8 – but I DID know it. It would have been pretty hard not to with hundreds of Japanese planes flying overhead dropping bombs on us……. Your life almost parallels mine. We were both born in the military on bases. Both experienced history in the making. albeit, you didn’t know it at the time. We are both really, really smart! Don’t you like that last comparison?

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