William Vlach

Writing

1965:2015

I was fresh out of high school when Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were killed.

My elementary and middle school years were filled with white kids whose fathers worked at the factory or were ranch hands, Black kids who demanded a quarter to walk up to the gym or sat quietly in the back of class with pretty ironed hair, Latino kids who outran everybody on the field or invited me to their quinceanera. We moved to the white Sacramento suburbs after my father died. Ninth grade began with a school counselor who placed me in bonehead English.

Fuck you, Mrs. Cartensen.

The suburbs were a mix of doctor’s daughters and meat packer’s sons. The school was 100% white, except for the blind Vietnamese exchange student.

The summer I graduated three three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were shot, their bodies were covered with a bull dozer. They had been registering voters in Mississippi. This was the segregationist Jim Crow American South. 17,000 black residents of Mississippi attempted to register to vote that summer, only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by local registrars. Nothing subtle about that voter suppression.

Crowds gathered in front of the State Capital in Sacramento. I worked three blocks from the building in my uncle’s insurance company– opening mail, filing, looking out the window.

It was a different era, easy access to our political leaders. At the end of the demonstration I walked over to the governor, Edmund G. Brown, and asked for his autograph. I liked him. He was a bit jowly and made me think of my uncles. I was pleased he signed the back of a paper which had the words to ‘We Shall Overcome’ on the other side.

I wanted to get there, to the South, to be a part of the struggle against segregation. No way. I had just got my driver’s license. Never been out of the state.

I saw the governor again, a year later. Back then the governor’s house was an old white Victorian building in downtown Sacramento. My friend Scott and I walked along ‘H’ Street, and there he was, watering the roses. We walked over to the black iron waist high fence and called out to him. A different era indeed.

It was almost exactly a year after the three civil rights workers were killed: August, 1965. Watts had exploded. 34 deaths. Over a thousand injured. Millions of dollars of property damage.

“Hello, Mr. Governor,” I probably said. Not sure. But I know I asked him about Watts. I know because I clearly remember him holding a green hose with his right hand and saying to us, “It’s like a prison riot. It has to be put down.” His free left arm pushed the air down to the lawn.

Watts had begun with an incident with the white California Highway Patrol officers and 21 year old African-American Marquette Frye.

The governor hadn’t made the connection between the two events.

Fifty years later it is obvious.

Wouldn’t you think…

And do you know what a man says when a klansman’s gun is stuck into his ribs?

“Sir, I know just how you feel.” That was Michael Schwerner seconds before he was shot to death.

Their deaths resonate fifty years later. His impossible empathy resonates fifty years later.

Is empathy the light that can get us through this mess this time?

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