By the late 60’s, Warren was a “working class” town where generations of factory (mostly steel) and skilled trade workers could expect to enjoy a decent quality of life. There were also “professionals,” and a country club but by and large, “lunch buckets” prevailed over briefcases. Racial tension typically was more an undercurrent than an “in your face” thing. Blacks and whites didn’t mix much: white churches, black churches; black clubs, white clubs. Oh, we shopped together (not that there weren’t “black” stores and “white” stores and we indeed mingled publicly. It gave our Midwestern city an illusionist appearance of integration. In school, we shared classes but in the lunchroom, it was mostly segregated by choice, some of us mingled but it was not the majority. It was the same at dances and to a certain extent, at sporting events.
In 1968 I was a high school sophomore. I worked at a family restaurant on the near West Side, The Hot Dog Shoppe. It was a popular stop, known for their authentic conies, great fries (“insiders” topped them with coney sauce), chili, burgers, shakes and soft drinks. Brothers of Italian descent owned it and they hired high school kids for below minimum wage. I started at 75 cents an hour, no paid holidays and no benefits. Still, the food was good, and we got to eat free. The owners were nice enough and I had friends who worked there.
At “the Shoppe,” blacks and whites sat side by side at counters and in adjacent booths. Few blacks worked there but I do recall one–there could have been others, I just don’t remember. I’m embarrassed but not surprised that I don’t recall his name. My memory is quite “selective” these days.
I had black friends back then but I never really hit it off with this guy. To work there as a black in `68, you ignored a lot. The ridicule wasn’t subtle. He took a lot of crap and even scolded me when I tried to intervene. I told him to stand up to them, telling him I’d back him up (as if it would help). He thought better of it, saying it was pointless. He needed the job.
Local radio always played through ceiling speakers at the Hot Dog Shoppe–probably still does. Pop music was the genre of choice, back then, a mixture of rock and soul rode just under the sound of clinking dishes, conversation and cooking.
April 14, 1968, was no exception. The music mingled with the murmur of several score of customers–none of which on this day was black. I worked the fryer that day. The crowd, lighter than normal, was somewhat sedate, until breaking news interrupted the familiar mix of pop tunes. ” From Memphis–Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot,” said the announcer. “He’s dead.” What ensued haunts me to this day.
First there was an eerie silence, as the news was repeated over the air, branching into details, which were lost amid a rising wave of exuberance from the all-white assembly. Some clapped. Others hooted and howled. Others still, jumped off their stools and whipped a fist in the air. This wasn’t Selma. This wasn’t Montgomery. This was home, Warren, Ohio…a city well north of the Mason-Dixon line.
As a white kid, I’d seen the vicious face of bigotry before, first, on TV. I didn’t understand it and my parents did their best to make sure we knew it was wrong. Later, it became more personal when I was insulted publicly, simply for hanging with black friends. We talked openly about racial prejudice and I learned much. I learned early on that it’s multi-faceted and cuts many ways. Once, a couple older black kids stopped me on the street, allegedly for a light. I thought nothing of it and had nothing to fear. One of them sucker punched me, knocking me flat on my ass. Another time some white jocks caught me wearing bell-bottomed pants my grandmother had mailed me from San Francisco, where they were all the rage and kicked crap out of me. (To them, I was a “hippie”).
So even though I was a white kid, I was no stranger to the grotesque face of hatred and its social consequences. Still, on that otherwise insignificant April evening, inside the Hot Dog Shoppe on West Market Street in ubiquitous Warren Ohio, I felt its savagery. Race had made me uneasy before but most of the time the most brutal representations of it flickered across my family’s black and white TV. It was more distant. I didn’t know anyone in those images. We could turn it off and walk away. This was more visceral. I felt deep shame for being white and it’s a feeling present that has recurred in lesser and greater degrees ever since. Rarely does it rise to the level of that fateful April evening but it’s nevertheless there. I pray not to feel it. It seems to go away from time to time, but reappears.
On Tuesday, November 4 2008, that feeling of white guilt sank deeper into the recesses of my psyche. I hope…I TRULY HOPE that with Barack Obama, we can cast off the curse that racial inequality has borne throughout our nation’s history.
We are the same, after all. Our body parts are interchangeable. We need to appreciate, celebrate our differences and understand more deeply our sameness. I hope we can. Barack says we can. Can we? I hope so. What do you think?