Right now America is on fire much like it was during my childhood back in the 1960s. I’m numb. I’m not sure what to think or feel as I am afraid I will not be politically correct. I’m not sure why that bothers me because I’m always marching to a different drum and rarely concerned about the approval of others. But I believe the pause exists out of fear that if I’m not giving the “right answer” my path may lead to violence. Also, I fear it’s getting to the point where silence and no answer may no longer work and may lead me personally into the path of violence. So some response is maybe better than none.
I hate violence. I’ve been at the receiving end of violence all my life. I fight to contain the rage that lives inside me, fearful that the right catalyst may launch me and I will act out, hurt someone, myself or end up in jail or dead. So I acknowledge, while I see myself as a person of peace, love and understanding, deep inside I’ve seen it all, experienced much and I too have an angry self ready to rock, roll and rage.
My parents were very racist. I was born in 1954, 9 years after the end of WWII, the third and last of three “Baby Boomers”. I heard them make comments about “negroes” as they were called back then looking at one of the houses for sale. My mother made comments about Jews on television, especially when they were on game shows and winning.
My neighbors down the street on the right towards the boulevard wore numbers on their arms carved there by the Germans. The parents spoke broken English. The children, two boys were mostly Americanized as they were born and raised here. But their parents looked like two deer in the headlights. I’m certain their fear affected their two American Baby Boomer children and fed the fuels of their inner fire. I’m not sure how they turned out or even if they’re still alive, I’ve lost track of them. Maybe I should look them up in Facebook.
I didn’t see my first black person until I was hiding under my mother’s skirt in Murphy’s Five & Dime and I looked over and saw very dark legs on a rather large, heavy set woman. I looked up and saw she was black from head to toe and I started crying, quite loudly as I thought she had been burned and that’s why she was so black. Looking back I wonder why my parents did not educate me about race. And I just sobbed and I’m not sure what happened. I managed to drag my mother off to a corner and ask her “Mommy, mommy, what happened to that lady? Is she in pain? How did she get so burned?”
My Mother was pretty cool, didn’t laugh at me but seriously answered, “She’s not hurt. Her skin is just naturally dark.”
I felt relieved and relaxed, wiped away my tears. Later I felt confused when she commented on how they were looking at the house for sale down the street. I was curious at first why she was so interested. But soon it became apparent that she felt invaded and that we were in danger in some way. I suppose that’s how the seeds of racism get planted. But I felt appalled and even somewhat angry at the anger my mother expressed towards people who were not like us.
My mother was accusing someone on television of being Jewish and I spoke up and said, “How can you tell someone is Jewish by the way they look? I thought “Jewish” is a religion”? I was so young, I wasn’t certain even how to pose the question. I don’t believe she answered that one, just ignored me.
I rebelled. I aligned with the hippies during the 60s while I knew my parents were Republicans and supported the war. All these things I faced growing up were very confusing. I had watched the marches during the Civil Rights movement and it wasn’t until Bobby that I began to understand the full meaning of what that meant. On one level it meant that blacks were equal in at least one aspect, that they could equally be drafted and sent off to war with the sons of all the poor white people (meaning my classmates and the kids of the neighborhood who were growing up, graduating and getting drafted). Some came back in body bags. The ones who survived returned with that strange wide-eyed look of terror that my Holocaust surviving neighbors exhibited years before.
Tommy was never the same. He had been a highly creative and artistic child, a natural leader who led us (and we followed willingly) as he created a neighborhood newspaper, block parties and plays. But this boy, now a man, returned transformed. All his spontaneity and joy seemed crushed.
Meanwhile the war raged on. Nightly at dinner the television blared with the death count of the day. America always won each battle as we had less deaths than the VietCong.
Life magazine arrived late morning so I rushed home to read it over lunch (I’ve always been somewhat of a nerd). I was shocked to see the issue called “One Week’s Dead”. I turned page after page, shocked to see all the young men’s faces. And yes, now they were equal, equally dead.
I lived in Pittsburgh and the flames of the race riots reached our shores. I remember a black neighborhood went up in flames. I’ll have to look this up, but I don’t think our riots reached the city. Hot spots flared everywhere around the nation.
My friend Shirley wanted to hike to Pittsburgh the spring of 1968 right after the riots. I was 14 and she was probably 15, maybe 16. I remember thinking that we just had a lot of riots. We lived in Avalon and downtown Pittsburgh was 6 miles away. She whispered “Don’t tell your mother where we’re going. Pack a sandwich and get some money.” I think Mom gave me 50 cents and a chipped ham sandwich with white bread and butter.
We had to go through North Side. I was always afraid of that part of town and warned to avoid it or I could get killed by black people. Shirley was silent, didn’t provide much information but for some reason, maybe curiosity, I just blindly followed her.
We walked along the Ohio River Boulevard, past McDonalds and kept going into the heart of the black neighborhood. By the 1960s negroes had become black and the N word was not a polite word to use. But people think what they think and do what they do, so in private the N word rolled easily off lips and could be heard everywhere now and again. But my school was mostly segregated with only one (maybe two) black children per class or grade. Since there were so few black children, they were popular. I’ll explain that later. I think we children suffered a bit from “reverse racism”. But back to my “hike”.
I was shocked to look over to the black neighborhood to see fires still smoldering. I felt a little bit of fear, but not so much as we were rather far away. But low and behold what did Shirley do but make a hard right and headed right into the heart of it all. And I did not even hesitate. I figured I had signed up for this adventure and if I die, I die, but I’m here and I’m going to do this.
So there were were, two little skinny white kids with nothing but the clothes on our backs walking past all these broken down row and wooden houses heading right towards the smoldering fires. I could see people peeping their brown faces through the curtains, shock on their faces which quickly shifted to concern, maybe even fear for us stupid little white girls. I swear I could read their minds. And I moved very little, my short legs struggled to keep up with Shirley who was much taller and in the peak of her prime. I didn’t wave. I did not nod my head. But I felt their angst building up and matching mine, I cracked an appropriate tiny smile. They started to do the same.
Finally Shirley had reached her destination. She was at the right house. She did not hesitate but boldly walked up to the porch to the door and knocked, quite loudly. Someone peeked through the curtain on the door then cracked the door open. Shirley said, “Are you ok? I just wanted to make sure you’re ok.” I heard someone respond, “We’re fine”. Then there was another inaudible brief spurt of words, the door closed, Shirley turned around and walked down the steps off the porch and said, “Let’s go”.
We continued till we reached an area further down closer to town but sill on the North Side. I think it was a museum or an aviary or something. I’m not sure. But we did our thing, then walked 6 miles back home.
That was a long hike, I was exhausted mentally, physically, spiritually. Had I just looked into the jaws of death? What would my mother have done had I, her foolish, youngest daughter gotten myself killed? There were probably a million potentially dangerous or fatal things we two young teenage girls faced that day. But the lessons I learned that day still follow me till this day and as riots rage once again across our nation, I struggle to integrate their full meanings.
I see the Press and the people on media, the news, social networks, etc. struggle as well. Not sure what to say, think, feel or say. I witness the struggle, once again, full circle. History repeats itself.
So I am researching it now in a series of posts and maybe doing something rather than just sitting there serves a purpose. And at the end of this conversation with myself (and maybe you who read this), some kind of logic, answer or even solution may emerge. But maybe not. Maybe we just have to experience it and see what we the people of the planet co-create. Hopefully this time we get it.
1968 Pittsburgh riots
|1968 Pittsburgh riots|
|Part of the King assassination riots|
|Date||April 5–11, 1968|
|Caused by||Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.|
|Resulted in||Property destroyed, order restored.|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|RiotersPittsburgh Police Department |
Pennsylvania National Guard
|hidevteKing assassination riots|
|DetroitNew York CityWashington, D.C.ChicagoPittsburghBaltimoreKansas CityWilmingtonLouisville|
The 1968 Pittsburgh riots were a series of urban disturbances that erupted in Pittsburgh on April 5, 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Pittsburgh, along with 110 other cities, burned for several days and 3,600 National Guardsmen were needed to quell the disorder. The neighborhoods most impacted were the Hill District, North Side, and Homewood with casualties including one death and 36 injuries. Over 100 businesses were either vandalized or looted with arsonists setting 505 fires. Order was finally restored on April 11 with 1,000 arrests being made and whole commercial districts being burned out. Many of the areas affected by the disorder never fully recovered in the following decades.
Other riots in Pennsylvania
- ^ “Pittsburgh’s Hill District: The Death Of A Dream”. The Huffington Post.
- ^ Emily Ruby. “1968 : The Year That Rocked Pittsburgh”. Journals.psu.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
- ^ http://popularpittsburgh.com/history-of-riots-in-pittsburgh/