Today, Election Day, I stood behind a young African-American girl who was waiting by the booth where her mother was voting. The girl had a smile that lit up the room and a personality equal to her smile. “Are you voting for Obama?” she asked me. “I am,” I said. “Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “You certainly can,” I said. And as we embraced I couldn’t help but think back to the summer of 1966 and my encounter with another young African American girl.
A black leader, James Meredith, who was the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, was hit with three shotgun blasts in Mississippi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Hosea Williams, CORE's Floyd McKissick, and SCLC's Stokley Carmichael called for a major march in Meredith's name. I had just returned to my Long Island home after my sophomore year at UCLA when my friend Johnny called. "This is history," he said. "We've got to go."
"You just came home," my mother protested.
"It's too dangerous," my father said. "You can't fight other people's battles."
"I'll be back in a few weeks," I said, and we flew the next day to St. Louis, then to Memphis, then hitched a ride to Hernando where we caught up with the marchers who had come from all across the country to protest the brutal way blacks were treated in America. If registering voters could bring some change, then we would do what we could to bring new voters and new voices into the mix.
Because it was so hot, we were given salt pills and instructed on how to conserve energy as we walked. Between towns we kept quietly to the side of the road, but when we approached a town where TV cameras were waiting from overhead bridges we came to life, answering the pep rhetoric questions "What do you want?" and "When do you want it?" with "Freedom!" and "Now!" We'd then break into songs that became rallying cries for a generation of protestors. I remember taking the hand of a 12-year-old black girl who recoiled at first. When I asked her why her body had gone rigid when we held hands she told me that she had never touched a white man before. But all she had to do was look across the road to see some fool holding the American flag and singing “The Star Spangled Banner" with a sign across his chest that read "George Wallace for President in '68" to lose some of her inhibitions and know that there was nothing wrong with holding hands with the future.
There were carloads of teenagers who passed us waving Confederate flags, some who threw rocks, others whose cars had "KKK" painted on their sides and bumper stickers with the words "We ain't never gonna forget." There were restaurants and coffee shops that stuck CLOSED signs in their windows as we passed, though patrons were inside eating. Gas station rest rooms which had signs indicating MEN, WOMEN, and COLORED. Water fountains FOR WHITES ONLY. Police took our pictures; white townsfolk gave us angry stares, children spat at us. And when we pitched the large tents on the outskirts of towns each night we couldn't keep any flashlights on inside because snipers were taking potshots at us, and we could hear the whizzing of bullets over our heads.
It was not a fun march. The heat sapped our energies, the bad vibes kept us aware of the danger that surrounded us, and even the civil rights leaders were divided. This was the march where those who followed Stokley Carmichael answered "What do we want?" with "Black Power!" Dr King didn't agree with this sentiment, but King's belief in non-violence was not as attractive as the idea of power, and the refusal to turn the other cheek.
One evening in Grenada, Johnny and I followed a teenage black boy to his uncle's shanty, where the only light came from a lone bulb hung from a wire. The walls were of tin and cardboard, the kitchen sink doubled as a bathroom sink, and the furniture consisted of a worn out bed, two wooden chairs, and some framed pictures of President Kennedy. The refrigerator contained a few pieces of cut boned meat, and a box of d-Con rat poison was on the only table next to a piece of stale cake being eaten by flies. There were six people living in that room.
That night we doubled our efforts to get blacks over 21 to register at the courthouse. We were told it was the first time a night registration took place in the history of Mississippi. King was at the courthouse shaking people's hands, exhorting them to bring their friends and relatives. And in the church afterwards, King did what he did best: he spoke with conviction about why the Negro must remain non-violent. "We're not gonna stoop down to our oppressor's level. The power of our bodies and souls will be able to turn Mississippi upside down and right side up. The white man needs the Negro to get rid of his guilt, just as the Negro needs the white man to get rid of his fear."
But King's speech didn't pacify those who wanted the revolution to begin. There was dissension at the campsite afterwards and general fear that the media would pick up the divisiveness and hurt the movement. A voice in the dark started to shout: "Selma was a picnic; the march on Washington was a picnic. This is the first time we are actually doing something: we are registering people to vote. And what's happening now can ruin everything."
What had begun in unity was slowly coming apart. The march continued to capture the attention of the press, but the civil rights groups were splitting in ways which wrecked any possibility of a Ghandi/King philosophy prevailing. "Black power" became a rallying cry, and Congress didn't pass the Civil Rights Bill in 1966. But the march was significant to a lot of us who had never participated in anything like it before. A black man was gunned down for no reason other than his desire for equality in the country of his birth, and it was time to say enough already and show that we cared. It was a time to reach out and touch the hand of another.
Now, 42 years later, young people all across the country have been knocking on doors and registering new voters. Change is in the air, smiles are lighting up schools and churches where people are voting. I’m hugging a 12-year old who has no idea how far we’ve all come. It’s truly a historic day.