Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a Federal Holiday. Unfortunately, it appears to me to be just a day where there is no mail delivery, government offices are closed, and the same for many school systems. It is, however, a day that reminds me of a generation that held so much promise and, in my eyes, did not even come close to its potential.
The decade of the 1960’s was like none other in our young nation’s history. Let’s go back a ways into U.S. history for a moment and touch on some points. By 1960 the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, depending on where you live, was over for 95 years. After the Civil War, America began to move from an Agrarian Society towards an Industrial one. This actually began before the Civil War, and was a main reason behind the war, but this is not taught in school. The late 19th century saw the laying of rail roads all across the continent, which meant mining, steel mills, the new oil industry, new towns, the growth of the clothing (textile) trade ,Unions and much more. Slavery might have been abolished, but we still had ‘Colored only bathrooms, water fountains, and restaurants. Blacks were relegated to the back of the bus, literally. Decent jobs, housing, and good education was scarce for them.
In 1960 I was 4 going on 5 years old, and was really only aware of the world around the garden apartment complex where we lived at the time. When the decade ended, I was 14 going on 15 and much more aware of what was going on in the world. I was even active at our local Peace Center (these were all over the country and were involved in the Anti-Vietnam War movement).
In the early 1960’s we lived in an apartment in Bergen County NJ. My first recollection of the world around me came on the day that our President, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. An announcement was made in school and we were all sent home. (Most children walked back and forth to school in those days). When I got home, I found my mother sitting on a chair in the kitchen, watching our little black and white TV with the rabbit ear antennas. She was glued to the set and was crying. I recall that my father made my brother and I sit in front of the television for next few days to watch this ‘history’ unfold. We weren’t happy about it, but in retrospect, I am glad that we did. We saw Lee Harvey Oswald get assassinated by Jack Ruby on live TV. We watched the funeral of our President, and who would ever get the image of young John, John saluting his father as the caisson with the casket came rolling by. The rein of Camelot was over.
We had a new President, Lyndon Johnson. A man that inherited a society in turmoil, a war that began in the 1950’s and, no matter what, could do nothing right. President Johnson did have a dream of his own. He wanted to give us a new program that he called the ‘Great Society’ of which the main goal was the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period. These spending program and initiatives were subsequently promoted by him and fellow Democrats in Congress in the 1960s and years following. It sounded good but decades later in retrospect much of it did not work, or was never given a chance to work.
By the middle of the 1960’s our family had moved to Teaneck, NJ which had the very first integrated school system in the United States. A book about it was published called Triumph in a White Suburb, and is still available today if you care to look it up. Black children were bussed to elementary schools all over town and sixth graders were bussed to a central grade school in the black side of town. We got to meet and talk to black children, play with them on the playground, and we found out that they really were no different than us white kids. But we were just still children and when Malcom X was killed, and anger raised its ugly head, us little white kids couldn’t really get it. By the time we entered junior high school, we began to learn more about current events and what was really going on out there. The black kids that were still our friends talked to us, but hung out more and more by themselves; they seemed angrier.
Many of us began to protest the Vietnam War. This was the first war that was brought right into our homes on television every night; the filmed footage, the body counts, the protests. Protesting made us feel powerful. During the next few months though, the shit really hit the fan. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson realized that there was no chance for reelection and announced that he would not run for office. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in cold blood by James Earl Ray. I remember the black students at our junior high school marching out and a starting a mini riot. I saw them go into garages, grab gardening tools, and smash windows. Needless to say, us white kids tried to stay away. I personally went home and kept watch over my shoulder. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for President. It was hard to believe that the Summer of Love, was just a year ago.
During the year 1969, Vietnam raged on, the Civil Rights movement raged on, man walked on the moon,
and Woodstock happened; a decade ended and a new one began. There was once again the promise of peace, love, tie dye, and HOPE.