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I am reading a letter from Hunter Gray. Forty-five years ago, he was known as Professor John R. Salter, Jr.

"About 7 years ago," Hunter wrote, "the right side of my face began to hurt significantly and intermittently, swell slightly, then recede. Then in May of 2003, during the marathon speaking trip my wife and I took, I suddenly felt something very strange 'way up in the upper right inside of my mouth.

"We stopped hurriedly at an Interstate rest stop, and I looked at my open mouth in the bathroom mirror. Something was protruding from the roof of my mouth. I fished it out. It was a large, thin, molded piece of bone-gray plastic, incised with blood-vessel and bone indentations. It was very old, crumbled when I broke it.

"I knew just what it was. Since then, more pieces have come. The pain and the swelling are gone. Something is now healed; something else is no longer needed. Memories remain, cut into the inside of my skull.

"At 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 18, 1963 on Hanging Moss Road on the north end of Jackson, Mississippi, the Reverend Ed King, and I were heading back to Tougaloo College following a meeting with one of our lawyers, Jack Young. He had told us matter-of-factly that we were both being indicted by the Hinds County Grand Jury on 'inciting to riot' charges. I was driving my little blue '61 Rambler and we were passing through the white area in fairly steady both ways traffic. Police had been following us as we headed north but now, suddenly and inexplicably, they disappeared.

"Suddenly, from a side street on my left came a car driven by a young white. He drove right through the stop sign at and forced a large, heavy oncoming third car directly into our path.

"We hit head on. When I regained consciousness, my car was destroyed. The windshield was smashed and part of Ed King's face clung to it. We were both blood-drenched and Ed was still unconscious. Standing all around us was a growing crowd of grinning and laughing whites. The white police were standing with them.

"The quite innocent driver of the third car that had been forced into us head-on was uninjured.  After fifteen minutes, the police came over. One asked, to which of the hospitals did we wish to go? I said St Dominic's, the Catholic hospital.

"They took us instead to the Southern Baptist hospital but not inside -- not right away. For a bit, we lay out in the yard in front of the hospital, while drought-breaking rain sprinkled down on us, and a brief discussion occurred inside about the propriety of receiving us. Then, we were finally taken inside. Ed was carried somewhere but I was placed on a cot in a public aisle -- while two dozen or more Jackson police walked grinning around my ostensible bier."

I put Hunter’s letter down and remembered.  The summer of 1963. I was in Washington, D.C., working for the organizing committee of the March on Washington. After work, with other members of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), we sat in at restaurants and swimming pools, we marched and picketed, we made a commotion because in the capital of the free world, the public drinking fountains had signs over them reading "White" and "Colored". The restaurants would not let black people in, the public restrooms and public swimming pools would not let black people in, black people rode in the back of the bus, black people could not vote, black people could not go to the same schools and get the same education as white people, black people could not be assured of getting treatment in public hospitals. Most black people could not get better than menial jobs, and most black people lived in substandard housing, in fear of lynching. The 'separate but equal' doctrine the US Supreme Court foisted on black people in its 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson still stood in practice, if not in law.

Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of DC's Howard University Law School, had begun to fight Plessy in 1934, knowing that it would be a long, incremental battle to overturn the Court's decision. Twenty years later, in 1954, the Court finally acceded to reality in Brown v. Board of Education.  The nation's public schools were separate but not equal, and must integrate "with all due deliberate speed." Houston had died in 1950, and the schools in 1963 were still not integrated.

On June 12, 1963, in Jackson Mississippi, civil rights leader Medgar Evers stepped out of his car and was shot and killed. The next day the black people of Jackson and their allies demonstrated, and the police beat people into bloody unconsciousness, including Professor John Salter Jr.  Two days later, June 15, at Salter’s request, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Jackson to preach the sermon at Medgar's funeral at the Negro Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, and then six thousand people marched two miles in 102 degree heat from the Masonic Temple to the Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street -- the first "legal" civil rights march in the history of Mississippi. A huge spontaneous demonstration followed, and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett called the National Guard into Jackson to supplement the hundreds of white Mississippi lawmen of all kinds. And the mobs of white vigilantes.

On June 18, about six p.m., pavement reflecting glitter and heat, I was one of maybe 35 to 50 limp folks who marched in front of the Justice Department in that DC heat. The sidewalk felt like the striker paper on a matchbook. Out the front door came a thin, wilted man in rumpled slacks and wrinkled white shirt. It was the U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy.

He had no tie or jacket on, and his hair was uncombed. He hadn't slept well in a while, by the look of him. And he began to talk to us, without a microphone. A crowd gathered, and soon there were a hundred people around the steps of the Justice Department.

He told us in a tired voice that he was aware of the fact that civil rights workers were being beaten, run down, harassed, arrested, in Jackson, Mississippi where Medgar Evers had been killed. He had FBI agents gathering information and he intended to find and arrest the perpetrators. He knew about the crimes against black citizens, students, and teachers. (He did not know about the madness of J. Edgar Hoover and the unreliability of the FBI, I suppose.) He said he had personally phoned the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and he informed the mayor that the US Attorney General intended to protect the lives, civil rights, and peace of the community from violence by anyone, including white vigilantes, or from anyone who violated the law, even those in uniform. And then the tired US Attorney General took questions, one by one, from the crowd, and answered each one extemporaneously, including that of a very drunken old black man who hung from an elegant DC lamp post and tried three times to enunciate his question.

Hunter's letter said:

"Finally, we were in a hospital room. I was able to call a brother of mine in Arizona before someone rushed in and took the phone away. I wanted my brothers and our rifles from Flagstaff. Heavily armed Mississippi lawmen were stationed outside our door, and it had little to do with protecting us.

"Ed slept consistently -- but I only intermittently. Then Ed's wife, Jeannette, came into the room. She had a copy of the afternoon paper, the Jackson Daily News. It had a big headline, 'Integration Leaders Hurt Here: Salter and King Hurt in Wreck.' And a banner headline told us, 'President Calls Jackson Mayor.' President John Kennedy and his brother, Robert, the Attorney General, had been busy on their phones to Jackson officials. There was a picture of Jackson Mayor Allen Thompson holding a telephone. "Said the caption, 'Peace Will Return.' Under it was a sentence, 'Mayor Thompson says Jackson will again be peaceful for both races when the outside agitators are defeated. . .'

"Surgery for both Ed and me took many hours. I was first, then Ed. Ed's face was badly, hideously cut, and in my case many bones were smashed and broken, from the right side of my face all the way down through my ribs. My right eye-lid had been intricately sliced, almost off, but miraculously the eye was unhurt.

"Later, when an attorney of ours, the hard-fighting and super courageous Jess Brown came to see us, he grabbed a janitor's broom and, shuffling and scraping, pushed it down the corridor and around the corner right to our locked door. The heavily armed Mississippi lawmen let him in. Once in there, he whipped out a yellow pad and took testimony.

"As it turned out, the Jackson Movement -- Mississippi's largest grassroots upheaval -- had shaken the very foundations of Jackson and the sovereign State of Mississippi. And its bloody ramifications reached across Dixie and the nation -- and out into the whole wide world."

And on June 5, 1968, having just won California in his campaign to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Bobby Kennedy was shot by at least one person, Sirhan Sirhan – the next day Robert F. Kennedy died.  

We know what we do with our great religious and social leaders.  From Tecumseh to Medgar Evers, to John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy. We murder them. It's hardly an attractive career path.

What, then, should we do, knowing that politically and economically, we all have to shuffle in one another's chains?

We go on, and sometimes we hope.  We try to keep historical perspective.  We try to leave a good minority report.  

Some folks like John Pilger say Robert F. Kennedy was a carpet bagger and was equivocating about the war in Viet Nam.  That’s what he told Amy Goodman on today’s Democracy Now broadcast.   Pilger says Obama is equivocating about Iraq now.   I was young and green, but RFK was one person who gave me hope, and the memory of that hope has kept me going many times in the past 40 years.  People born after 1970 have no memory of the emotional atmosphere of hope that pervaded the United States in the 1960’s, despite the war in Viet Nam, despite the poverty, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction.  We were buoyed as a people by the progress brought to us by people of color, the Civil Rights movement.  We lost hope as one social and political leader after another was murdered.

May our hopes have fruit this time.  Meanwhile, I feel great gratitude to the Kennedy family, a clan of well educated public servants with all the human juices and foibles, a family who have served us with blood, time, and honor.  Robert F. Kennedy once said "It’s class, not color. What everyone wants is a job and some hope."  He said that he believed that politics – serving the public – was an honorable profession.  We work to restore that honor.  

Thank you.  

Originally posted to marthature on Thu Jun 05, 2008 at 07:57 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Powerful. (5+ / 0-)

    I was a child when the hell and magnificence of the civil rights struggle was going on.  My father would call me into the living room every evening to watch the TV news:  "Watch this.  You want to remember this.  This is important.  This is history."  I watched the hoses, the fires, the policemen beating people, the dogs attacking them, and still the people sang.  The images are still in grainy black and white in my mind.  At fifteen, I wept as I read of Robert Kennedy's death, and feared there was no hope left on earth.

    We still miss him.  Thank you for this tribute and for the reminder of memories we must not forget.

  •  Thank you for this diary. (4+ / 0-)

    I wasn't born yet when Bobby Kennedy was killed, but his words and wisdom were shared with me by my parents.  

    I'm posting a link to a youtube video, a montage of photos of RFK set to the eulogy at his funeral, given by his brother Ted Kennedy.

    I watch this video every time I feel discouraged about my ideals and feel as if they can never be attained, or whenever it seems as if moral courage has all but left my countrymen and women.

    May we all learn from and become inspired by the words and deeds of s truly great man.

    RFK Eulogy

    "My relationship with America does not fit on a damn bumper sticker" -- Crashing Vor

    by balancedscales on Thu Jun 05, 2008 at 08:17:37 PM PDT

  •  My favorite RFK quote... (6+ / 0-)

    It's a paragraph from his June 6, 1966 Capetown, SA speech...

    "It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

    "My relationship with America does not fit on a damn bumper sticker" -- Crashing Vor

    by balancedscales on Thu Jun 05, 2008 at 08:22:52 PM PDT

  •  Amen to this. (6+ / 0-)

    The thing about the Kennedy brothers was that they were real people.  

    They came to office flawed, and proved it was possible for high officials to learn and change.

    Jack wasn't elected as a peace candidate or a liberal; he was elected on a platform that stressed "the missile gap," a non-existent lead the Soviet Union was said to have over the United States during 1959-1960.  But he also brought his ideals with him, and his inaugural address was inspirational.  He went "eyeball to eyeball" with Khrushchev over Cuba, and learned from it that things had gotten totally out of hand, and we had come very close indeed to the abyss.  And he said that, at his American University speech, as eloquent a plea for peace as anyone ever spoke.

    Bobby came to the office of Attorney General with similar baggage.  He had been assistant counsel for the McCarthy Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations.  As Attorney General, his agenda was to fight mob control of unions.  On the job, he learned that Civil Rights had to be upheld, and it was his job.

    I don't know if Pilger is right that he waffled on peace in Vietnam. I think he saw the war as a mistake, and was in the process of formulating a strategy to disengage, and just hadn't finished it.  But he inspired a host of peace activists to believe that one of that Washington establishment wanted peace and would stick his neck out for it.  And somebody cut him down.  Did he die for Civil Rights?  For his Mafia fight?  For his peace stand?  We have no evidence.  We have only what we believe.  Inspire he did.  They both did.

    Thanks, Martha.  I wish I had been there on the steps of the Justice Department.

  •  nice angle (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dadanation, balancedscales, Munchkn

    a bit rambling , but I was able to follow. I was expecting to see and hear more RFK  remembrances today, but wonder if many are trying to avoid Clinton's type of blunder?

    I don't know why my memory of this is less clear than MLK's or the Democratic convention that year. I was 8.  I'll have to ask my dad if perhaps we were on the road at the time and not as able to watch TV.

    -7.75, -6.05 The point of the war in Iraq is that there IS a war in Iraq- Keith Olbermann

    by nicolemm on Thu Jun 05, 2008 at 08:25:35 PM PDT

  •  What the heck? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dadanation

    What was the piece of plastic coming out of his mouth?

  •  quite a stunning diary. n/t (0+ / 0-)

    _________________________________

    "it's not my stop but the view is better."

    -9.75 (economic), -7.18 (social)

    by dadanation on Thu Jun 05, 2008 at 11:57:42 PM PDT

  •  RFK's Influence on Millions of People (0+ / 0-)

    cannot be disputed.  

    His legacy, like that of all leaders, is complex, but 40 years after his death he still inspires us.

    Thank you for this diary.  

    Think of the constitution as a levee. Think of our democracy as New Orleans.

    by Into The Woods on Fri Jun 06, 2008 at 12:23:03 AM PDT

  •  time is a gentleman (0+ / 0-)

    Mississippi is still racist, but beginning to acknowledge its past.  Yesterday I heard an announcement on the radio for the "B.B. King/Medgar Evers Blues Concert."  And whether the whites like it or not, Obama may well change this red state back to blue.

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