From a list of extra-credit reading, I chose the book because it was new, the binding still tight, not even a dog-eared page. My life would never be the same.
The Watts race riots began with an African-American driver being pulled over by a policeman on suspicion the driver was drunk. He was not. A tiny pebble of injustice displaced layers of oppression, creating an avalanche of anger and dissension which rumbled throughout the city. Fires were set, 34 died, thousands were arrested and property damage neared $40 million.
And so went the next year and the next. The race riots of 1967 were voracious: Tampa, Boston, Cincinnati — and then four days in Detroit where 43 died, 2,000 were injured, 442 buildings burned.
I read the description of events in Los Angeles through the lens of a naïve 17-year-old who had just started using “African-American” instead of “colored” to describe the only two classmates she knew who fit that description. “Bussing,” to force integration, was still a year away.
To say I was moved by reports that the African-Americans in Watts suffered high unemployment, poor schools and inferior living would be an understatement. I wanted my parents to assure me that we were different, that surely “it wasn’t so” in Kalamazoo. I wanted the smoke on the horizon to clear and everyone to be happy.
After writing my book report in the spring of ‘68, I grew hopeful listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King. He was a good guy; surely we could all get along, and yet, in the next heartbeat, he was shot and killed. More riots — Washington, D.C. and my own city were on fire. A week after King’s death, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
African-American Arthur Ashe won the Grand Slam in tennis that summer, but the Black Power participants at the Olympics in Mexico raised their fists in protest as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played. It seemed as if there was no safe place to stand. Nothing was as it used to be.
I entered my freshman year in college with a determination to change things. I met with the students of the Black Coalition on campus. I carried signs of protest in the pine grove. I listened to Motown and danced to Aretha’s "Respect" with the two Afro-haired girls who lived on my floor.
One of my roommates took me to her home in D.C., where the population of African-Americans was higher than the white population. She drove me downtown to see the burned-out buildings left from the riots the year before.
My optimism dimmed when time did not change things fast enough. I became distracted.
I did the status quo thing — got married, had children, worked and lived in a town where the population of people-of-color was (and is) miniscule. To my children, my husband and I modeled tolerance and respect of all people. But hey, when you live here, there are so few ways to practice.
And then, four years ago, I watched Barack Obama take the oath of office for president of the United States. Words are not adequate to describe the surge of emotion, the shear elation I felt. I had done little to affect the outcome of his election other than vote for the candidate I believed would be the most qualified to lead the United States of America. He happened to be African-American.
Forty-five years has passed since I wrote my book report for 10 extra-credit points. The majority of voters in this country have affirmed this man for a second term.
I agree with Tribune community columnist Alexander Sinn (Jan. 22): “Truthfully, we cannot fully grasp and recognize the suffering, dedication and ability of people to overcome their circumstances in one measly Monday … sometimes the race is slow, sometimes we must take a day off to examine why we are here, and dream of where we may go.”
And, what a Monday it was — Jan. 21, 2013. Although I do not consider myself old, I am glad I am alive to witness the evolution of history. We are yet young and naïve about many things, but we concur that all human-kind are created equal.
— By Ann Brugger, Tribune community columnist