My Life's Regrets: I Didn't March With Martin Luther King, Jr.
March on Washington, 1963
Teenager In Love During the Civil Rights March, 1963
by Billie Kelpin (the first in a series of "My Life's Regrets")
I was 18 in August of 1963 when the Civil Rights March on Washington took place; I wasn't there - a great regret of my life. I don't know how I might have found myself there unless I had been more aware of what was going on outside of my little high school world of Greendale, Wisconsin. I like to believe that if had I been a bit older than 18, I might have been able to rebel against any probable protestations my parents surely would have made if their only child told them she planned on boarding a bus to DC to march in the Civil Rights Movement.
But I was in love with boy named Jack that summer of '63, I DO remember that. He was a bright, bright boy who had engaged my mind in Mr. Lee's History class the year before when we were both juniors. We'd write notes back and forth about the topics of the World War I and World War II and joke about Mr.Lee and his bow ties. Jack knew EVERYTHING about History, about Chemistry, about Physics. When the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in the Fall of our junior year, he probably gave me the complete historical background to the politics in Cuba in the school library as we dodged frowns from Mrs. Zwieg, the librarian, who kept "shh-ing" us. As "the world turned," Jack and I headed down two different educational tracks in our junior years. My father and mother urged me to NOT take Chemistry and Physics my senior year, in preference to a more practical tract of Typing, Shorthand, and Office Practice. (After all, June Clever, was getting along quite nicely as a stay-at-home mom in "Leave It To Beaver," so why would I need to go to college?) But traversing different hallways didn't end our relationship.
Graduation: June, 1963
Author's 49 Year Old Copy of Pope John Paul XXIII Encyclical Issued in April, 1963
Pacem in Terris, p. 100
Long Forgotten Influence: "Pacem in Terris"
While Jack rushed to his Physics classes and I to my Shorthand and Biz Econ. classes, we nevertheless managed to flirt in the hallways and fan the flicker of a potential relationship. After graduation, in 1963, during the summer of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, our mutual attraction turned into a summer "romance," (as far as good Catholic girl romances go.) I'm certain that during those months of June, July, and August, Jack and I were touched as we sat together watching Walter Cronkite cover the Civil Rights Movement. We did a lot of talking as we held hands walking together to Mass on Sunday mornings that summer. We probably discussed Father Van's homilies reiterating a now long-forgotten significantly influential encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) written in April of 1963 by Pope John XXIII. Unlike other important papal letters addressed to Catholic bishops, Pope John directed this encyclical to "all men of good will". In a
post-World War II, post-Korean-emerging-Vietnam era, that encyclical, no doubt, wove its way through through tapestry of peace and human rights that characterized the Civil Rights movement and a short time later, the Anti-War Movement. It had been only two years after the Berlin Wall had been built and a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the world yearned for "pacem in terris" and feared nuclear annihilation.
How to Find Themes of Your LIfe
If you look on the shelves of your bookcase, you can find the themes of your life; you can find the values you cherish. There are books there, old books that you weren't able to give to Goodwill or sell on eBay. Those are the books that say a great deal about the influences in your life. For almost 50 some years, I've been toting around the photo "coffee table" edition of "Peace on Earth". I am not sure if I purchased it in 1964, the year the book was published or later. I can't even remember what bookstore there was before Barnes and Noble where I might have purchased it. But I have it and in it, you can find the same essence of non-violence that drove the marchers to Washington to hear Dr. King that August.
Quotes - "Pacem in Terris"
Many of these concepts have been well inculcated to our psyche that mention of them now, while timely, may seem cliché. However, that is because the encyclical was effective in shaping the mindset of that time in history.
- "... A further consequence of man's personal dignity is his right to engage in economic activities suited to his degree of responsibility."(16) "The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity."
- "Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to immigrate to other countries and take up residence there." (22) "The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men."
- "Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other."
Social Movements Do Not Happen in Isolation
So, in August of 1963, while thousands gathered on the lawn in DC, Jack and I were most likely tearfully saying good-bye to each other, trying to hold tightly on to that that tenuous thread of a summer romance.
Dr. King's speech and the growing awareness of the importance social justice was trickling (or more precisely pouring down to the white suburbs). While Jack went off to the progressive Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, I stayed back home in Greendale to commute to my new job as clerk-typist at the Milwaukee County Courthouse in the Department of Public Welfare, dutifully satisfying my parents desires. After all, as they thought, 'I was just going to get married and have children anyway someday.'
But the intensity of the early 60s was deepening and whether you were a college student in "mad city" or a recent high school graduate on her first job, the energy was in the air. I know I had to have caught some of the fervor of Dr. Martin Luther King's speech that summer as Jack and I surely discussed politics in between stolen kisses because shortly after he left for UW, I started to volunteer to tutor in the "Core," Milwaukee's term for the inner city. I had gone to the training sessions and remember walking down the street to find the house of the little girl assigned to me. I had been among poverty before visiting my Aunt who drank her way through losing a young husband to brain cancer, but my soft pink sweater and white go-go books must have shouted to the little girl that I knew nothing about her life. For reasons I've forgotten or perhaps repressed, the tutoring was short-lived. But during the week, as I continued running for the bus in the morning to type and file and deliver mail at the Department of Public Welfare to the social workers, the idealism of Dr. King's speech and his continued call for Civil Rights lingered in the air. On lunch breaks I started to read books like "Before I Sleep" and "The Night They Burned the Mountain" by humanitarian Dr. Tom Dooley who had just gone to Thailand to set up hospitals. I read about Dr. Albert Scheweitzer's work in Africa, and I wanted to be more than a clerk typist at the Department of Public Welfare. I started to admire the work of the social workers to whom I delivered mail, and was secretly infatuated with a sandy-haired Child Welfare Worker named Don. Against my parents vision for their daughter, the boredom with the mundane of my civil service job seeped into my consciousness, and I realized that there was work to be done that I couldn't nor wanted do as a clerk typist.
All social movements have energy and they connect to other movements. It was as if the very air we breathed in the 60s was charged with some ionic valance of activism,
Peter, Paul, and Mary at the Civil Rights March 1963
Albert Schweitzer - leading up to the Civil Rights Movement
1905 Sermon by Dr. Albert Schweitzer, before embarking on his work in Africa:
"Oh, this 'noble' culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different color..."I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind If all this oppression and all this sin and shame are perpetrated under the eye of the German God, or the American God, or the British God, and if our states do not feel obliged first to lay aside their claim to be 'Christian'—then the name of Jesus is blasphemed and made a mockery. And the Christianity of our states is blasphemed and made a mockery before those poor people. The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity—yours and mine—has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated. For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus' name, someone must step in to help in Jesus' name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.upon them."
President Kennedy's Assassination
Whether we were directly or indirectly influenced by Dr. King's speech that summer,none of us could have imagined that summer that in few short months, President Kennedy would be assassinated. While History can objectively look at the human frailty of any one of these leaders, Dr. King, JFK, even Gandhi, it is those men and women who set the tone for that time; they inspired the masses; and the masses moved to make changes.
In the Spring of 1964, a year after high school graduation, I quit my clerk-typist job, and went to college against my father's advise. Chemistry and philosophy now consumed time while others marched in protest against the Vietnam War.
Jack and I lost touch with each other. I think he might be amazed to have learned that I went off for my degree in spite of my parent's views of women at the time; he might be surprised to know that I think it might have been his interest and knowledge of history and certainly my visit to him that one time on Madison's Progressive campus, that probably shaped by political leanings. But we walked that summer at a time that surely influenced us.
Do I regret I can't say I marched with the others? I do. Do I regret I needed to get A's to feel good about myself rather than pay attention to the world? I do. I wish I could tell you I joined the Peace Corps or show you pictures of me in a long skirt and bohemian scarf, I do. But that's why those who are older always write for those who are younger.
Live at Town Hall 1963 "With God On Our Side"
Cohorts in History
It's not a pretty term - "cohort" - but social scientists use that word to refer to those who walk along the same time-line as we do. Just as an older child's experience of his mother and father can be radically different than the younger child who experiences his parents farther down the time line, so too, those of us who were in our late teens and early 20s in the 60s experienced the nation at one of it's finest moments. Horrible mistakes were made, it's true, but always that period was about Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris, about JFK's "ask not.." and about the most memorable phrase of Dr. King's speech, "content of character." And now 50 years later, it's all part of a tapestry so interwoven. Few people remember that the speech that Dr. King gave on the day he died was a protest of the Vietnam war. And as Presidents reflect on Dr. King's each January, the world still struggles with the moral issues of poverty, war, and justice. Those of us who were carried by the idealism of our youth in the 60s, moved by the summer of 1963, still carry with us that aura of the Age of Aquarius. Unfortunately we are the echo of Dylan's words - that the answer to peace and justice is still "blowin' in the wind.' But it feels as if, in 2014, a new wind is blowing and that the younger of us, the new "Millennial" and "First Globals" may becoming onto their own Age of Aquarius.
A Note to Gen-Xers, Millenniel's, and Post-Millenniel's
Our world is changing at lightning speed. Now there is a NEW Pope who has chosen the name of Francis so he might reflect the mindset of that saint whose prayer is for us to be an "instrument of peace" and the spirit of a previous Pope's encyclical was "Pacem in Terris". There is much to be done. Governments throughout the world are being restructured into a new order and thousands who are living in refugee camps must have resolution and a return to normalcy. Issues of privacy, the Internet, and social media must be met head on to ensure the rights and dignity of each person. The tremendous disparity of wealth in the US MUST be addressed if democracy is to stay intact. Global climate change MUST be faced head on and new sources of energy sought so we can secure an earth that is inhabitable for all.
Whether you're in love or in college, or even both, you can "walk and chew gum". You can be awake and aware in the world because you, in fact, are walking through history at this very moment. There are individuals as amazing as the change-makers of the 60s. Find them and join them. You won't regret being part of the part that makes the positive difference and helps humankind to keep on keeping on.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The "Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi"
While erroneously cited as the “Prayer of St. Francis” since 1927 when its first known translation in English appeared in January of that year in the Quaker magazine Friends' Intelligencer (Wikipedia), the prayer on the right nevertheless embodies St. Francis' philosophy of peace, social justice, and environmental concern that shaped the 60s. We are now living in an era when the Pope who has been chosen by the largest Christian denomination in the world by taking the name "Francis" honored "a saint that transcends the Catholic Church and is loved by all people, a saint who reached out for simplicity, ... poverty and care for the poor," (Rev. Thomas Rosica, spokesman for the Vatican in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp - CBC).
It appears as if a 60s, "Age of Aquarius," kind of era seems to dawning.