Sunday, August 25, 2013

Coming of Age During the Civil Rights Movement - Learning to Love to Fight

I never marched in protest of the Vietnam War nor did I participate in the Civil Rights Movement in any real way when it was ongoing.  I wasn't a hippie, either.  Maybe I was just a little bit too young.  I was 15 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the impact of  Dr. King and his work did not enter my mind back then.  I would like to say I was too busy worrying about teenage things, but back then, I was worrying about home issue that were atypical of most teens.  In my free time, I just wanted to act like a teenager.

When Dr. King was killed, my high school was dismissed.  Not fully aware of the importance of the day and the tragedy of the events, I wanted to hop on a city bus and go to downtown Kansas City to go clothes shopping, thinking that this day was not that unlike any other.  When I got home, I discovered that in the inner city, which stood between our house at 58th and Brookside and downtown, there were riots.  I had heard of rioting in other cities, but was shocked that Kansas City was included among the cities with racial violence.

Later that year, 1968, Robert Kennedy was killed and I thought what was wrong with people.  I still tried to be a teenager, even though I dealt with other "domestic" issues.  National or international affairs seemed too remote and I did not feel a connection to the civil rights struggles.  The Vietnam War was gaining in unpopularity and I was against it, but it had no direct impact on me.  I was not going to have to register for the draft because I was a girl.

The impact of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War didn't hit me until 1971, when the domestic strife was resolved, I was 18 and going to college.  I do not know why I felt so affected after so much apathy.  I attribute my indifference at the time to youth.  In college, the struggles of the 60's and early 70's seemed very important.

In college, the Vietnam war was so important.  Every day on the evening news, there were films of atrocities and  daily body counts of thousands upon thousands.  I could not understand why we were fighting and boys my age were being killed in large numbers.  When McGovern ran for President, I naively thought he had a chance to end the war.  I was 19 and the voting age had just gone from 21 to 18, so I could vote!  Somehow, I was elected as a Democratic delegate for McGovern to the Missouri state convention.  We lost the convention, then the Presidential election, but then Watergate happened.

I like to say I became a discrimination lawyer because of the Civil Rights Movement or The Vietnam War, because those were rallying points for our generation.  Plus, I came from German and Polish immigrant Jews who had fled Hitler, so I had a natural affiliation to downtrodden in this country.  But the truth is, had it not been for Watergate, I do not know if I would ever have been politically awakened to injustice in this country.
Many, if not most, of you reading this blog are too young to remember the events of Watergate.  The hearings were constant in the news during 1974 until Nixon's resignation in August.  My then boyfriend, now husband, would stay glued to the television in his apartment off the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia. I was 21, more mature than my 15 year old self, majoring in political science because of the lessons learned in my brief stint as a McGovern delegate.  I was to be married during college, in August of 1974, and Nixon's resignation the week before our wedding seemed like an odd but satisfying wedding present.

Those events in the early 1970's, begun when I was too young to care, created an idealism in me that has been impossible to shake.  I know young people now make fun of hippies and naive protesters.  That time, though, was unlike any other time in my life.  People questioned authority, questioned war, questioned bigotry, unlike anything I have seen since.  And, it did make a difference.  Growing up as a white girl in Kansas City in the 1960's I heard many of my elders toss around the "n" word like it was a natural adjective. Jews were called kikes, Hispanics were called greasers or worse.  My brother, with his black kinky curly hair, was mistaken for an Arab.  In college, a group of boys yelled at him, "Go back to Iraq, you camel-jockey!"

Of course, there is still racism and needless deaths in hard to justify wars.  But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 started getting teeth in 1991, when jury trials were allowed.  Plaintiffs have won a lot of civil rights victories since the laws were passed.  We have a Black president, something I doubted I would ever see in my lifetime.  We may have a female president before I die.  It is socially unacceptable for whites to use the "n" word, men can't chase their secretaries around their desks to cop a feel, and it is illegal to pay women or minorities less than white men.

Life for Blacks and women is better than it was 50 years ago in this country.  The fight is not won, though.  I guess I feel fortunate to have lived through the times I have.  Without the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, I do not know what occupation I would have chosen.  It feels good to have a purpose. It may be that I am a dinosaur trying to fix ancient wrongs, but I have found that I like to fight. I do not want to fight for the status quo.  I don't know what this says about me as a human, but I like to fight and I have something for which to fight.  Maybe I am the "Dexter" of lawyers, I like to fight and I have a "code" so that my fighting is socially acceptable.  It's good to be old enough to remember the protests.

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