That summer of 1964 was particularly warm in Southern California. One more semester of high school to go and then hopefully on to a state college. I was looking forward to the local Catholic church's carnival and car raffle. (The Monsenior won the car every other year, I swear!) The playground of Holy Rosary school was transformed into booths and stalls with all the teddy bear games and dime pitching glassware you could carry. There was cotton candy, sno-cones and, of course, lots of girls in small clusters to gawk at for my 17 year old friends and me.
There was also news of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
I knew about the literacy tests, the marches and demonstrations, the danger of trying to bring liberty and justice for all. My history class the previous semester gave me the opportunity to study current events and my eyes opened to the reality of democracy, or the lack thereof, in America.
When the three civil rights workers went missing in Mississippi, nobody expected a happy ending. The South, especially Mississippi, seemed intractable. We knew about the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and the code of silence that daily covered up all manner of crimes and thuggery. Most of the country knew the time had come. There would be no turning back, but they also knew that this struggle would take sacrifice. People's lives.
Perhaps I identified with one or two of the young Freedom Riders. Perhaps my understanding that my baseball idols, like Willie Mays, hadn't had it so easy. Maybe it was that essay exchange between my English class and one from South central Los Angeles. No matter, the subsequent deaths of these 3 young martyrs hit me much harder than anything I'd ever experienced.
Before that summer ended I remember watching the younger brother of James Cheney crying at the service for his lost older brother. That image never left me.
Shortly after that funeral I went to the church carnival and came home with a small goldfish in a bowl. I named him Ben for the youngster whose grief wouldn't leave me alone.
The following year, my mother's terminal illness would occupy most of my time and turmoil. I'd go on to study history in college and within five years from that life-changing summer, I'd find myself in the South as a VISTA volunteer. I'd see parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and yes...Mississippi. I'd also have a couple of sleepless nights courteously of the Klan.