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Living in Society

Racism and Me

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons, Yoichi Okamoto.

A grader notices things. I got a newspaper route in the seventh grade and managed my own business. First it was the Des Moines Register and then the Times-Democrat. There were nice people and deadbeats among my customers. Nice people were friendly. They paid on time and talked to me like an adult. The deadbeats, not so much. They wouldn’t pay their weekly bill. When I told the office to cut them off after a couple of weeks, the customer called the office and blamed me for them not paying, even though I knocked their door for collections twice every week when they were delinquent. Whatever the deadbeats didn’t pay came out of my margin. Even though there were losses, I had enough money to take the bus downtown to pay my newspaper bill and buy a few things on Saturday mornings.

One of my favorite downtown places was the automat at the M.L. Parker Department Store. I would wait outside for them to unlock the doors so I could be the first one in. I occasionally bought a pre-made hamburger and warmed it under an infrared light bulb. We didn’t have such a heating device at home.

I stopped at W.T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth and occasionally went to Petersen’s, inconveniently located across a busy Second Street. I also stopped at Louis Hanssen Hardware Store where they had a centralized cashier operation connected to the sales floor by a small trolley system.  There was a coin shop which was almost never open as early as I was downtown. The idea coins passing through my hands on the paper route were worth more than face value was fascinating.

I had vague notions that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X existed, yet they had little impact on our daily lives. I don’t remember seeing a news story about the assassination of Malcolm X even though it was in February of the last year I delivered newspapers. I heard about it later in high school. Like many, our family viewed King’s speech at the march on Washington on television. We believed everyone should be treated equally.

I encountered black kids my age at the YMCA swimming pool and at summer camp. It seemed like no big deal, although I bore a kind of racial prejudice without recognizing it. I knew black kids were kids like me yet I didn’t encounter them often. These experiences put into perspective something it’s important not to miss: I grew up in white culture with white privilege.

I had heard about the 1960 sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in school before starting my newspaper route. That prompted me to enter the Woolworth’s in Davenport one Saturday morning and check it out. It didn’t seem that special, even if it was to those four North Carolina college students. No one was dining at the counter when I arrived. The woman behind the counter asked if she could get me anything. I don’t remember if I did that time, yet I added the lunch counter to my rotation of places to eat on Saturday mornings. I don’t know how the black kids I swam with at the YMCA would be treated if they tried to order something.

Our family saw images of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after Dr. King’s April 4, 1968 assassination. We watched news coverage on television. The night shots of the scene were confusing and upsetting. Added to the recent assassination of President Kennedy I wondered what was going on in society. Assassination of our leaders was plainly wrong.

Today we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday. He would have been 94 years old had he lived. Here is the speech.

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