Martin Luther King Jr

The Independence Movement comprises the intellectual, artistic and most ineffectually noisy 5% of the conscience of the Puerto Rican people. Fifty years ago, I was sitting in a contrastingly calm Independista reading-discussion coffee room in Santurce, Puerto Rico, when the monitor approached me. He had been listening to the radio in the back; assuming I was American, he informed me that Dr. Martin Luther King jr. had just been assassinated.

I had been living in Puerto Rico and Mexico City since January of 1967. I had first seen television on one of those round, diminutive, black and white screens 20 years previously. In Puerto Rico and Mexico, it was still black and white – and very scarce. In Mexico City, I read about the Middle East Six-Day War in one of those Spanish-language newspapers that must be retrieved from the newsstand before they are all gone. There was one English-language radio station at the time. In Puerto Rico, expatriates of all stripes had an excellent information lifeline in the daily English-language San Juan Star newspaper. Despite the effectiveness, or not, of these news organs, one still is divorced from the raw reality of, “Being There.” Thus it was with me and the Civil Rights struggle.

My first four years of life in Philadelphia paralleled the extent of the Hoover Administration. The North was spotty and undemonstrative with its racial bias. I went South for the first time when war was beginning in Europe, and returned to Philadelphia the year of Pearl Harbor. That was the beginning of my education on the world beyond the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

I entered the U.S. Army the same year of Truman’s integration order. It was a long, slow process. Ultimately, it produced a more humanely cohesive society than that which is now our non-military reality.

I was away from the East Coast during the whole of the 1950s. While working for the San Diego Municipal Court, at the time of the Kennedy assassination, it was the first time I had felt the pangs of national upheaval. JFK recently had spoken at San Diego State College. The reality of the act was doubly impactful.  It was the first time I had seen the whole country closed down. Anyone who was caught on either side of the border was stuck for the weekend. There was nothing on TV except Dallas or Washington, DC.

The whole King phenomenon and the landmark Supreme Court decisions seemed as remote as the rest of the concurrent history in progress. The South I had known was peaceful and polite, but full of color-placement signs. The North was peaceful and polite, with no actual signs, but with unwritten signs of color-placement. The overall, national attitude was, “There are no problems; this is the way it is.”

During my brief stay in Philadelphia in the 60s, I learned that the oppressed, Colored underclass* had been emboldened and were emerging from their abject obscurity. They had become a danger to the rest of the Negro population, whom they seemed to resent for having colluded in their marginalization. A community- active brother of mine, in whose home MLK had supped, and whose white skin at times found him in no-man’s land, was on the front lines, fervently attempting to bridge that triangular divide.

*(This group was not only on the lowest rung socially and economically, they were also the darkest in color.
At the time, the term, “Black” – which was used throughout the Negro population – was a stinging insult.)

I was still in Puerto Rico, a few months later, when history still was being made around me – with the death of the other Kennedy. Thus it is with history -- you are either there or you are not. Sometimes, even if you are there, you are not.

*****  *****  *****

Ah, History, ‘tis thee we now know.
Thy shadow swift does not much show.
Present, thou art a bore;
Reflection makes thee more.
What baggage this that we must tow!

Curtis W. Long

Curtis W. Long

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