That summer of 1964 was a typically warm one in the San Fernando Valley. Just a few weeks away from my senior year in high school, I remember walking up to a local pharmacy to peruse the rack of paperbacks for sale. My interests had recently migrated from the budding space program to the budding civil rights movement. One of my classmates in U.S. History had shared a book called The Movement, full of photos about lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and the glaring poverty of the rural south. After reading a Newsweek article on literacy tests that included the question, "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" I wanted to read more. That pharmacy book rack was the closest thing to a bookstore I could find. But find something I did. I discovered the new paperback version of Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King. Aside from the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," which would become a literary classic, the little paperback contained a centerfold of pictures. It cost 60 cents, but I somehow felt that it was worth much more than candy, baseball cards, comic books, or even a new pocket comb. Dr. King was beginning to rival Willie Mays as my new idol.
The previous summer I had witnessed a remarkable scene on live television. TV, I remind you, in 1963 was black and white and about 5 channels. On an equally hot afternoon the previous August, I watched, spellbound, the live coverage of the March on Washington D.C. I recall my mother was ironing in the little pantry room off our small kitchen while my sister and a couple of her 17 year old girlfriends hung out talking about social clubs at school, boys, reading entertainment or teen magazines and occasionally emitting giggles and squeals.
By the time the famous speech was in progress, I knew I was watching history in the making. I'd never experienced that before. My forays to other parts of the house became more frequent.
"Come on, you guys, you gotta come see this. Martin Luther King is speaking now. There are thousands of people in the Capital. This is really something." Nobody joined me. I'm probably the only one who was in that house that remembers that afternoon. My mom would only live three more years and my sister and her friends would part company a couple of years later. It's not that it was just another warm Southern California summer day to them; they just didn't have the sense of history in the making. Exasperating as it was, I don't fault them. My sense of what was unfolding before me has been validated many times. Most of the history books that followed saw to that.
That sense of history in the making would return a number of times over the 50 years that followed. In fact, in just a few short months, John Kennedy would be assassinated, some of my friends would live only a couple of years beyond high school and meet an untimely death in a place called Vietnam.
But I knew something began that day for me. Something that would follow me throughout college and the first ethnic studies classes offered at UCLA. Something that would take me to some of the meanest streets of Houston, Texas, as a VISTA volunteer, and then ultimately to a teaching career in Northern California's East Bay.
When I watch the 50th anniversary of this watershed event, I'll recall that warm summer afternoon and Dr. King's magnificent voice rising and falling. But, I'll still see my mom, ironing away, with her 7-up bottle sprinkler close at hand. The events and words of that afternoon became forever emblazoned on this culture.