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.