1968, A full fifty years have passed. So many experiences for me since then. Career. Marriage. Children. Divorce. An African detour early on. Cross-country moves. A whole new life within my art in only the past two years. Yet, indelibly etched in my memory are the two assassinations within two months of each other 1968. My emotional pain, my disappointments, my total loss of faith in this country's institutions.
I was so moved by Martin Luther King. I had met him two years before, had marched with him, attended his rally’s, even spoke directly with him. His moral principles. His eloquent style of speaking. Yes. He had been forced from his comfortable role as the nation’s conscience in Civil Rights in the south, to the conscience for the Viet Nam War, and for the poor in general. His constituency was not as clearly defined. And so many Whites wanted to see him fail. His power, influence, particularly outside poor black Southerners had fallen somewhat. Threatened Whites breathed more easily around him.
And the Viet Nam war. So contentious. So big a chasm between me and my friends and the “older” generation. We did not want to see our colleagues shipped off to die in what we saw as a meaningless war. Strategies for winning, or for even getting out, were non-existent. I marched to the Oakland draft board over and over. I begged and pleaded with the recruits not to surrender to the Draft, to take a step back instead.
The draft was so laden in our class structure. The poor boys were taken. My friends in university classes, in plans to move to Canada, in schemes to be disqualified—maybe poor eyes, low weight, bad knees. !-Y’s were at a premium. Young men were inventing conscientious objector philosophies. The talk among everyone in my peer group at UC Berkeley was the best way to avoid this draft.
I remember the day King was killed. I was tutoring a young black girl in West Oakland. We heard the news. I abruptly ended my session, raced out of the house, and onto the nearest bus toward Berkeley. For the first time in several years I did not feel safe in a Black community.
King’s funeral was broadcast throughout the student union of the UC campus. We all joined, sobbing as we watched his family, listening in disbelief to the eulogies.
But, our hopes were pinned on Kennedy. Back in March, about a month before King was killed, LBJ pulled out of the presidential race, leaving the nomination to Humphrey. Sure, at one time we might have favored Humphrey, but he was too aligned with Johnson and the war. Along came Bobby Kennedy. Extraordinary man. He could calm anti-war voters, could speak, as Johnson once could, to the horrendous poverty and divisions in the country. We trusted him to “fix” Viet Nam.
I remember watching his victory in the California primary more clearly than I remember watching last night’s news. I remember cheering, tears running down my face as he claimed the California primary, was guaranteed the presidential nomination. Then the cameras panned through a kitchen. There he was, one minute walking through, the next minute he was lying down, his bleeding head cradled in some man’s arm.
Shock. Horror. Disbelief, Screams It was revisiting the assassination of his brother four years before—right there on the television, unedited. Our hopes were dashed. Immediately we began to talk of what to do next. Canada? Couldn’t stay in our broken country. The draft would catch the men! We had to get out!
My boyfriend looked into the Peace Corps. We heard they were putting together a contingent to go to teach in Northern Nigeria. Northern Nigeria which was wracked by its own civil war. We asked few questions, packed our bags.
The Democratic convention in Chicago assured our worst fears. Chaos reined. Humphrey was not up for the task. Tricky Dick who had looked sleazy when paired with JFK still looked sleazy. Just nobody to stand against him. No hope for our country. Nigeria here we come!
This seems like yesterday. No. Fifty years ago today. I often ponder what might have happened if Kennedy didn’t walk through that kitchen that night. Would we have moved beyond the divisiveness of that time?
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"