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The Day I Almost Died

STANDING IN AN EAST ST. LOUIS HIGH SCHOOL PARKING LOT, I THOUGHT I'D SOON BE DEAD...

Preface: This story is not directly about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And while I’ve told this story privately several times through the years, I’ve never before written an article about it. Numerous friends and acquaintances have told me that I should, and a few have even suggested I should publish it one year on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. I’ve never done so because I’ve always felt to do so might constitute a form of opportunism, reminiscent of that which I generally deplore in regard to eulogies penned for deceased celebrities.

However, recently, in an installment of our joint column “He Said He Said”, fellow writer Jim Murray and I examined the issue of writers publishing eulogies of recently passed celebs; and as an example of my reticence to walk the path at the edge of opportunism, I mentioned in very general terms this narrative, which I have carried around with me, unwritten, for more than four decades. And once again, a number of readers and writer friends have prodded me to publish the story.

As a result, here it is. I believe a valuable life-lesson runs through it, one not of anger or regret, but one of hope. Let me know what you think.

I can’t remember if I cried … But something touched me deep inside …

Don McLean in Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

In those days, I was a graduate philosophy student at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. For about a year, I had been teaching logic part-time for Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, IL. And in the spring of 1968, I was doing an introductory logic course for graduating high school seniors as part of a “head start” program being run by SIU for select soon-to-be freshmen coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I taught that particular course using a classroom at a high school in East St. Louis, IL, just across the river from St. Louis, MO, where I was living. There is no other way to describe East St. Louis at the time as other than a war zone. Social and economic discrimination and deprivation had taken its tollor more accurately, had kept it from achieving even the basics of a sustainable local economy.

In the midst of these depressing conditions, my class of about twenty students, some of them white, but most of them black, was replete with some of the most earnest and hard-working students I’ve ever taught. They were headed to college, their escape ladder from the deprivation and disappointment surrounding them. And they were as determined as any I’ve ever met to succeed. So injust were their circumstances, and so deep the struggles of these young adults, it just made you want to cry.

Anyway, the class was going great. One of the best I’ve ever taught, then or since. Then around 6:00 pm on April 4, 1968, the news flash came in… Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed.

I knew most of my East St. Louis students would be devastated. And I hoped that SIU extension class administration would cancel my class that evening out of respect for them and their feelings. But I could not reach anyone in SIU administration at that time, no matter how hard I triedand I tried. But that was in the days before cell phones, so I decided to make the half-hour or so drive to post a note canceling the class, in case anyone showed up. Which I feared some might do, because of their dedication and determination. I felt it was the least I could do.

And singin’ this’ll be the day that I die… This’ll be the day that I die…

Don McLean in Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

I listened to the radio as I drove the half-hour across the Mississippi River to East St. Louis. Not many details were yet being carried in the news reports, and things seemed fairly quiet along the way from the Interstate to the high school parking lot.

When I arrived, I could see what appeared to be maybe fifteen or twenty young people milling about. But the situation did not appear outwardly overly threatening.

Now perhaps, it will help you better understand my perceptions and actions, if I explain that I grew up in inner-city Chicago, early on the West Side near Roosevelt Road and Kedzie Avenue, then later on the South Side. And that I attended high school first at Chicago Vocational, an area-wide technical school known for being a “hard” place, then later at Hyde Park HS at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, which was located in an area about as different from the white-bread suburbs as you could find. Consequently, I was no stranger to street toughs, and I figured I would just post the notice canceling my class and leave. Big mistake.

Within a few steps of exiting my pick-up truck, I was surrounded by a group of what I could now see was about forty people. And from the looks on the faces of those nearest to me, and the tone of their street talk, I quickly realized that I could be in real trouble. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the crowd thought I was a white student who had come to attend a night class, in total disregard for the feelings of the community and its grief over what had happened that day. And although Don McLean had not yet published Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie, a refrain something like, “This could be the day that I die…” began looping at the back of my mind.

Then, just as I was trying to explain my reason for being there, a group of about half a dozen of my students, both male and female, pushed their way through the crowd. They literally formed a cordon around me, while the biggest of them asked, then explained to the crowd what I was doing there, took the notice from my hand, and showed it to some of the toughs pushing in. The group of my students then escorted me back to my pick-up, told me not to be so foolhardy in future, said they sincerely hoped to see me back after things cooled down, and finally, made sure I could leave the lot without being further accosted. All of which they did at no small risk to themselves. For had the situation escalated out of control, they would have paid the price with me.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood…

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his I Have a Dream speech

The experience of that day touched me to my very core and has remained vivid in my memory ever since. I have no illusions that what played out in that East St. Louis high school parking lot was some sort of real-world incarnation of a spiritually uplifting Sidney Poitier movie. There was no inspirational music playing in the background, no Hollywood teen cuties gathering around in giggling adulation. It did, however, signal to me that hope can justifiably spring eternal, and that people of fundamentally and instinctual goodwill can genuinely connect across racial and economic divides.

Given the acrimony that built during the recent U.S.presidential election, and which appears to continue today, I find that I am moved to share, for what it is worth, the lesson of that experience. And let me be clear that I do so in a personal statement of concern, as well as an affirmation of hope for the future of this nation.Phil Friedman


Postscript: It’s my experience, that racial and ethnic prejudice is not innate, but must be taught. Moreover, that once taught, it must be reinforced at every turn, if it is to survive. For the normal human spirit is wont to reach out on a person-to-person basis in friendship and mutual concern, notwithstanding differences in skin color, ethnicity, or even religion.

This is a basic tenet of the philosophy of non-violent social action, shared by Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. For my part, I am not so sure about the efficacy of non-violence in the face of violent hate, but rather believe that violent hate must often be met not with hate, but nevertheless with countervailing force. Still, however you may come down on that particular issue, the universally shared commitment must be to social justice, if our children are to have a future worth living.PLF

Image Credits: The author, Google Images, and The Dallas Morning News

Originally published at www.bebee.com

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