Lucy Sanchez was born and raised in Plainfield. She reminded me that I covered her PAL karate school several years ago. "Since then I have graduated from Rutgers and Syracuse, and worked at CNN, and a Gannett newspaper in Syracuse, but landed in corporate America," she wrote to Plaintalker.Now raising a family in a nearby town, she still visits Plainfield frequently and volunteers at a mentoring program for young people here.She said she felt moved to do a story about the 40 years that have transpired from the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama, and interviewed city resident Nancy Jordan as part of it. She agreed to have it published on the blog as a guest column, so here it is.
A History of Ballots and Bullets – 40 Years Later
I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1968, Hester Moore answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for more youth to get involved in shaping the future of their community. Although only 16 at the time, she felt compelled to support the efforts of over 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I can remember screaming, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! This is not what Dr. King wanted,” Hester said through tears. “All hell had broken loose. People just started running and screaming. Then there were gunshots. By that time the police had arrived and just started beating people. We ran into the church and the pastors and older people were screaming and telling us to settle down. Other people were cursing because the police had sprayed mace … we thought some of them were dead. We tried to regain order. The only thing I kept thinking was they’re going to kill us and my mom is not going to know where to find me.”
The protestors were later barricaded and forced out of the church at gunpoint by the National Guard and police. Hester arrived home to her mom watching the events of the evening on the news. She said her mother was so inspired by the hope something would have to be done because Memphis’ injustice was being televised, that she could not bear to tell her that she looked in the face of death that evening.
Dr. King would revisit Memphis one last time. On the evening of April 3, 1968 he delivered his final speech. Dr. King was assassinated the next day. A wave of massive riots occurred that evening. The city was in a state of emergency. Army tanks roamed the neighborhoods. Curfews were enforced.
“I can’t express to you the pain. I can still smell it. I can still feel it. All you heard all night was sirens and gunshots…all night,” she said.
“Coretta Scott-King, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson and a few others came back because they wanted to finish the march that Dr. King had started. I remember making my way up to the front and Jesse Jackson said ‘Daughter, do you want to come up here?’ I was on stage looking at the sea of people. ..I wanted to say take me away…but I couldn’t speak. I wanted somebody to take me away. I was 16 years old…and I just gave up. I wanted to be a teenager again. I couldn’t do it. It was unbelievable that bad things happened to good people. I couldn’t understand it. And then I began to have so much fear. If they could kill Dr. King and Mr. Kennedy, then who am I? I am nothing.”
Hester said she lived in fear for many years after that, sometimes even filled with guilt because she had survived the civil unrest. She strictly focused on her family for years and suppressed any thoughts of that time in her life. On the 30th Anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Hester returned to Memphis to confront many ill feelings of her past. It was not until 1998 that she would tell her story. Hester has since created a monologue entitled 16 ‘n’ 68, and has brought audience members to tears with her performance which chronicles her experience as a teenager during the time of the sanitation strike.
Today, on the cusp of the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States of America, the 57-year-old said, “I am so wonderfully blessed to have lived to see this day.” Hester traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the inauguration on January 20, and said she was going in the “spirit of those who cannot witness what I am going to see.”
Travel with me down the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge, Louisiana the home of Rodney G. Young, 58, who shares his account of growing up in the sixties. The deafening echo of civil unrest found its way to Baton Rouge during the integration efforts of the late 1960s, and Rodney wanted no part in it. There were sit-ins at local lunch counters and bus terminals, marches at local universities resulting in expulsions and student protests which found their way to the state capitol.
Dr. King was assassinated during Rodney’s senior year in high school. “I remember the outcry from the students,” he said. “We had some of the kids at the school who were militant in their attitudes. They wanted to tear everything down. They were venting their frustrations on the nearest white person that was around.”
While most of these battles made the news, Rodney was confronting his own inner struggle. His upbringing taught him to avoid conflict, and his reality convinced him that was the safest route to take. Rodney’s mom was a domestic worker and provided the sole source of income for the family. Like many other teens at that time, he wanted better for himself and dreamt of equality, but secretly also wished the town would quiet down so nobody would be harmed.
“Right now, I would have a different attitude and would definitely say to get involved,” he said. “I reaped the benefits from all of the people that did get hurt.”
“I saw everything from prior to the civil rights movement when we had to use the separate facilities, go to separate schools and sit on the back of the bus,” said Rodney. “We moved into a period of desegregation and facilities were being integrated, and it was the first time the movement had reached this part of the South.”
Rodney’s family was welcomed into an integrated neighborhood by the site of a burning cross in their African-American neighbors’ yard.
As frightening as this was, he said the disparities that impacted him as a student were just as dreadful. “During that time, I was being convinced that I wasn’t necessarily an equal to other white students when it came to education. The teachers always stressed that we’re going to have to do so much better than everyone else until we started thinking that we’re not as qualified. They made me feel inferior.”
“Young people today have an advantage because they are starting without having a handicap that they are inferior. A lot of young people have never heard black men can’t be leaders. They never got that false impression. Although you still have some people in the South that can’t overcome it. It’s been seared into their minds. I think this whole movement toward President Obama’s victory has been the result of a lot of young people who voted, not for the black man, but for the issues and I thank God for bringing us to this point.”
Rodney, now retired, is taking heed to President Obama’s message to make a difference and take change into our own hands. He works on a tutoring program for third, fourth, eighth, eleventh and twelfth graders.
Last stop, up to the North to the suburbs of Plainfield, New Jersey. Just as the whispering sound of the Black Power Movement lured a frustrated and disheartened Hester into (and quickly out of) living room meetings in Memphis; and the thunderous chant “Burn, Baby Burn” fired by Baton Rouge activist H. Rap Brown stung the ears of Rodney and others seeking justice through peaceful methods; Plainfield had its own share of violent protestors for a community that was already on edge. The riots of 1967 knocked on the door of the “Queen City,” never leaving it quite the same again.
Plainfield resident, Nancy L. Jordan, 56, said the town was a relatively mixed community of blacks and whites during the late sixties. The city was divided by economic status with an overwhelming number of middle and upper-class residents living on the East end and the other individuals living on the West end.
“We all seemed to get along, but it was the outside factions that seemed to keep things going,” she said.
A series of racially-charged incidents sparked in July of 1967 that resulted in riots, looting, stolen firearms, physical altercations between the police and the African-American community including countless injuries and the death of Officer John Gleason.
“The National Guard came to the high school and they told all of the white kids to stay in the school and all of the black kids to go home,” said Nancy. “I lived on the East end, but they wouldn’t allow any of us to go to the East. They made us march to the West. Most of us had to go to the Neighborhood House. My mother got in the face of the National Guard. I said, ‘Mom they have rifles.’ They responded by herding us down to the West end where they said all of the black people lived.”
“[Some people] are still having nightmares from the riots…There was a lot of shooting in Plainfield during that time. It was like we were at war.”
Various programs were created after the riots including the availability of swimming pools for residents of the West end and programs to help stimulate employment opportunities for African-Americans, however, Nancy said the equalization of the education system still remained a constant fight.
“I remember being on the picket line with my mother,” she said. “We picketed the school board and we were singing We Shall Overcome.”
“My mother was a very strong advocate for fighting for her rights and fighting for her kid’s rights, and I’ve adopted that spirit as well. Dr. Martin Luther King was non-violent, but he was a fighter. He was an activist. I believe in us fighting for our right to be, and I just wish kids today would understand that. I’m hoping President Obama inspires young people to get involved as he has been, and that the older folks will pass the baton. I believe today’s younger people may be able to work together for a common purpose.”
Nancy currently sponsors a mentoring program, “Youth Exposure,” via the local Plainfield Police Activity League.
In the sixties, racial and economic disparities caused tension to race up and down the spine of the United States of America. Life was drained out of some cities, and they are patiently waiting to be resuscitated. Americans are still haunted by the demonic divides of the riots and the ghosts of inequality. The country still bears scars to a past wounded by fire hoses, night sticks and bullets…but today, forty years after the summer riots of the sixties, the ballot holds the greatest power of all - the spirit of hope.--Lucy Sanchez