Friday, February 19, 2016

Remembering 1963

Remembering 1963

It was about this time in the afternoon. I was in one of those lecture hall classes, a core curriculum survey of world history. The professor was so far away that I couldn't make out the details of his facial expression, but we could hear clearly because he used a microphone. Someone walked in from the right of the room, interrupted the lecture and spoke with the teacher. He then turned to the class and said, "We have just received word that the President has been shot in Dallas. We don't know whether he was killed, but he has been shot."

He paused for a few seconds. Nobody said anything. He then said, "Anyone who thinks that by killing the president they will stop his policies does not understand history. Shooting him will do nothing to stop what he was trying to do."

The place was Tallahassee, Florida and the campus had at that point been polarized over the picketing of two off-campus eating establishments because they refused to serve Negroes, as they were then respectfully called. In 1962 the graduate school at Florida State Uiversity had accepted its first black student. And that year, 1963, the first undergraduate student was attending classes.

I was only nineteen at the time, but something in me felt that if those restaurants, which only existed because the students and faculty of that school were there, refused to allow a black student to be served, something was badly out of balance. As a Southern Baptist I had already been struck by a contradiction of the same sort when an African student who came to America was not able to stay at a Baptist school because the dormitory was reserved for white students only. That had struck me wrong also.

Acting on a blind and unreasonable impulse that makes young people sometimes hard to endure because they can't understand why wrong things can't just change for the better, I allied myself with a group of students meeting weekly at a Unitarian Church at the edge of the campus, calling itself -- and it sounds so corny now -- The Liberal Forum. We had contributed to the closing of one of three restaurants, and were picketing the second. I was kicked out of my cheap off-campus room because of my activities and had put up with an even cheaper space, a garage apartment, shared with one of my radical peers.

The news of John Kennedy's assasination was devastating. The days which followed were among the saddest I can remember. The university arranged for continuous television coverage of the news and funeral, which of course included the subsequent killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. I still remember the endless playing of Chopin's funeral dirge and the funeral procession. It was the beginning of a turbulent chapter in modern history.

The teacher was right. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year and the Public Accommodations section validated the reason that we were picketing.

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