This photo of me was taken in 1968. I was a little bit shy of my 17th birthday which would arrive in late spring. My country was reeling. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and furious protests roiled through cities which were literally on fire. That was only the beginning. Just before my high school graduation, Bobby Kennedy was killed. The war in Vietnam was escalating. The Black Panthers were rising. I was wide-eyed and questioning authority, processing my political views and choosing my future ideological path. That summer, I worked downtown in the Chicago Loop. The Democratic National convention came to town, and with it, streets became lined with police dressed in riot gear. “Tumultuous” feels like a relatively mild adjective to describe the city’s affect. I’d come out of my office at the end of my work day and pass the officers in their blue helmets, holding their billy clubs and slapping them against their opposite hand. A force designed to intimidate. There were raucous demonstrations and rollicking concerts in Grant Park in which the atmosphere turned violent. I wasn’t beaten or arrested, but just the same, the adult I was evolving into was molded by all these events. By the time I started college that fall, I was working my way into a political ideology, built on a mostly liberal home education, which ultimately led me to more radical views. It’s no coincidence that 1968 has been studied and restudied as a pivotal moment in modern history. The issues of racism, sexism, classism and anti-war activities occupied my college years. Who I became, the principles at the center of my essential humanity, were forged during those years. Becoming an adult, a wife and partner, a friend and parent, and an ally for victims of oppression, all stemmed from the central philosophy that I chose for myself back then. I participated in demonstrations during that convulsive time and beyond it. I ran, so fleet footed back then, from local and state police in my community and also in the nation’s capital. I was arrested. I remember a great about those heady days in which I thought me and those who agreed with me would change the world. It’s 52 years later. The world is in the grip of a viral pandemic. I’m approaching the end of my seventh decade on this planet. My life has been crammed with a great deal of beauty and joy, ugliness and sadness, fulfillment and disappointment. Luckily for me, my little personal life has been a source of all that is positive. I’ve had great love and a wonderful family. I’ve not been hungry or unclothed or homeless or unsafe. But my social justice aspirations have fallen short many times over. The battles waged back then, and the struggles to achieve fairness, equity and respect throughout my country and the world, still loom large. In fact, in many ways, the mountain of problems seems even higher to me now than it did way back then. Maybe it’s because the time ahead for me is shorter, which makes things seem so daunting. Daunting and repetitive. How can the same wretched issues remain so deep and unchanged? Maybe the pandemic has made things seem worse, given the scary claustrophobic nature of this time. I’m not really sure. All I know is that the murder of George Floyd, on top of all the other murders of black people which have continued steadily throughout my lifetime, has unleashed a fury and an anguish that’s hard to stop thinking about. That makes sleep hard to come by. That brings empathy, sadness, questions and more questions. That brings the intense need for systemic change in our damaged and eroding democracy to heated urgency. I’m wishing I could talk with Michael, my passionate partner and teacher of American history, with whom I shared the same world view, and who could help me navigate this incredibly complex time of both physical and health challenges which feel so overwhelming.
I’ve been looking at my Civil War bookshelf. I got started studying that war when I was about twelve years old. Someone gave our family books about Abraham Lincoln. I read them over and over. I remember the admiration I felt for this smart, self-taught man who represented my home state and wound up freeing the slaves. Or so it seemed. I still can recall that he died at 7:22 am on the morning of April 15th, 1865, not even a week after the surrender of the Confederate army, the end of the war. “Now he belongs to the ages,” they said. At my own tender age, I thought the Civil War had really ended. But as years went by, and I began to read more books, and to witness the inequities experienced by black Americans, I realized that the war never really ended and that in fact, it was still being waged, sometimes more overtly, sometimes more covertly, but waged just the same. That in fact, it is endless. Despite everything that’s been written about states’ rights and other random motives for the war, to me it’s always been about slavery. Pure, simple and unrelentingly true. I kept on reading, book after book. I could never fully absorb the fact that people stood opposite each other for four years, blasting each other to bits because one side wanted so desperately to retain control of its work force, looked upon as no better than subhumans. Granted, there are complexities deeper than that for some of those long ago people, but in the end and to this day, racism is as American as the proverbial apple pie.
In the spring of 2016, Michael was four years out from his initial diagnosis of his relentless Merkel cell cancer. He’d been through 55 radiation treatments, 20 injections of chemotherapy, a hideous oral targeted therapy and ultimately, immunotherapy. All of these assaults on his body had bought him periods of time when he was healthy. We both knew that his cancer would reappear eventually. After he got through his treatments in 2012, we took a trip to Sanibel island after he finished school in June, 2013. When fall came with its wicked metastasis, he went through 18 weeks of chemo. With no idea how long he’d be cancer-free, we headed back to the Florida Gulf Coast for restoration of both soul and body. But once that was over, we decided that he should think carefully about all those dreams on his wish list, the places he’d hoped to have time to see in his future retirement. One of those bucket list items was the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Luckily for us, our shared appreciation for history made these trips a simple get. Off we went to Memphis in the spring of 2016 for the profound history, the music and the barbecue.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like approaching the Lorraine Motel if you were a cognitive person alive when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I can’t count how many times I watched the scene on that balcony after he was shot, when Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and others stood pointing in the direction from where the bullets had come. As with the scenes from the Kennedy assassination, those images are burned into my brain. I barely got through the front door when the weeping began. The barbaric weapons of slavery on display, along with the texts, photos and actual artifacts of oppression are powerful and painful. Our time spent there wasn’t as much learning something new as it was being forever altered by the proximity to the instruments of horror. I feel lucky to have shared that experience with Michael.
And now here we are today. Michael is gone. Endless racism is still here. Only a week ago, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. The country is teeming with rage and the current administration is behaving like we’re headed toward a police state. I truly fear for democracy. The surreal nature of this reality, coupled with the still-circulating virus, is hard to describe. To say things feel pretty weird is a serious understatement. I spend a considerable amount of time feeling I’ve time traveled back to the 1960’s and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes because of the lockdown measures, it kind of feels that way. Today, a protest was planned for my community. At first, I thought I’d go, as I’ve gone to other demonstrations throughout my life. Too-many-wars protests, women’s rights protests, anti-gun protests, and now a black lives matter protest. Then I was worried about being in a crowd with the virus concerns as I’m old enough to be in “the most likely” death group. What about my kids and grandkids who would be devastated if something happened to me just a few years after losing Michael? Thirty minutes before the gathering, I was still pulling weeds in my garden. In the end, I realized I needed to be there, virus or no virus. Sometimes you just have to live your principles no matter what. As I walked the few blocks to the meeting place, I realized that most of the people around me, headed in the same direction, were young enough to be my grandchildren in addition to children. That was okay. They get to see that the gray hairs still have something to say. I found my own family there and we had a shared political experience which I’m proud to say, wasn’t the first one. What I wish is that it could be the last one. That the endless time of protesting could finally come to an end.