Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Going back to 1954

I was thirteen and a trip to Connie Mack Stadium in northeast Philadelphia was an unheard of treat. Although we lived only about 45 miles from the city, it was rare to be able to actually travel there, let alone to witness a baseball game with my mother and stepfather.

But it turned out I witnessed far more than an athletic contest that record hot August day. Although 58 years have passed, I still have a vivid memory of what happened when we left the stadium and sat in traffic waiting to get to Broad Street and on our way home.

The row homes that bordered each side of Lehigh Avenue contained people everywhere... on the steps, in rocking chairs on the porches, hanging out upper story windows. Unlike my own neighborhood, there were no air conditioning units visible and most of the residents waved papers or magazines to try to ward off the stifling heat.

I had never seen anything like it...misery on every face, often downright hostility in the eyes of many who watched the cars snake by, heading away from the way they lived every day.

I remember telling my parents I would hate to live that way, to be doomed to a life in the city, in the heat. Fresh from listening to the news coverage of the fight for freedom in the segregated South, I suppose I was an idealistic kid, whose sensibilities were offended by the thought that an entire race was treated as inferior and that the laws were only then beginning to recognize the injustice and move to remedy it.

As the years went on, I never forgot that seminal moment in my human rights education. Living in a small southern New Jersey town, where the few black citizens lived outside the town limits and there were no colored faces in our Catholic school classrooms, I still managed to grow into adulthood feeling a strong sense of the unfairness faced by so many of my fellow Americans.

Not even the passage of all sorts of new laws designed to help eradicate the decades of injustice...equal rights laws,  Affirmative Action laws, all of them... could succeed in changing the nature of race relations in America, where a seething racism seemed to lurk just below the surface of civil society.

So I shouldn't have been stunned by the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I should have been prepared, as African-American mothers and fathers prepare their sons, to expect that justice would turn a blind eye to the provocation, stalking and ultimate murder of Trayvon Martin. A friend explained to me how her husband instructed their son, as soon as he became old enough to understand, how to behave on the street or in his car should he be approached by a law enforcement officer, how to conduct himself so as to avoid anything further than a harsh look or comment.

Had I been the mother of a son, I would not have been forced to teach him the same lesson. My son, unlike those of many of my friends, would never have to contend with racial profiling. They could walk, run or drive on any thoroughfare they chose without fear of being singled out because of their race.

That same feeling of despair and anger that I experienced in 1954 rose to the surface of my consciousness again as I thought of the sorrow and pain being endured by Trayvon Martin's mother. She'd probably told her son the same thing...be careful out there...but certainly had no reasonable expectation that he would breathe his last at the hands of someone who singled him out, followed him and challenged his right to walk home from the store.

George Zimmerman could have stayed in his car. Should have. George Zimmerman could have pulled his gun and told Mr. Martin to leave the neighborhood. George Zimmerman could have waited for the police and let them discover that Mr. Martin's father lived on that street. And, as someone so eloquently posted on Facebook today, George Zimmerman could have pulled over and offered Mr. Martin a ride home, out of the rain. Unlikely, but in an ideal world, oh so wishful.

I won't live to see a world where something like that might occur. My children and even my grandchildren probably won't either. It will take generations yet for the minds of Americans to be educated to the fact that we are all one people. When one among us suffers injustice, so do we all, and I am deeply saddened to see it, again, again and again.

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