Monday, 18 January 2016

A Civil Rights Remembrance

My grandfather is a retired Presbyterian minister, a Navy man who served in Korea, and he has worked throughout his life on bridging the gaps, real or imagined, between different people. What follows is a remembrance he wrote from his time serving a church in Newark, N.J., during the riots there. On this day we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was so instrumental in pushing us towards greater equality—a push, perhaps, we still need today.

EVENTS—NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, 1962-69
By Rev. Harold W. Story, 2010; ed. by KFS

National Guardsmen in Newark, 1967.
As a young pastor in Newark, I was trying to work for an inclusive, integrated church and society while racial tensions increased in that city and across America. Our church, Memorial West, had a few black members. I tried to bring more black persons into the congregation. Our church sponsored both pre-school and senior citizen programs, thus hoping to integrate them as well.

I attended a rally that sought to bring inter-racial harmony. I was impressed by a white woman who was blind (and thus color-blind toward other persons). She spoke to encourage each of us to strive for inter-racial respect and cooperation. This was difficult as there was so much bias and bigotry in our nation.

My approach was to make contact, as a white person, with many black persons. I did so by attending black churches like the Metropolitan Baptist Church and a nearby storefront church. The storefront church leader was a bishop who called me his brother. We were both members of the Greater Newark Council of Churches. I was honored for my outreach to the community of Newark, working with neighborhood groups of black citizens to improve their community. I worked to bring programs for youth, such as the usually rural/suburban 4-H Club, into the city. I focused on a group of children who lived in an apartment building across the street from our church.

One day I parked my car in the church lot and went to enter the back door. On the door I read words written with chalk, “Please don’t lock me out!” This reminded me that we do keep others who are unlike ourselves from enjoying things we do. Some days I let the kids use our basketball court and the bowling alleys in the church. I was asked, “Who will be captain of the basketball team?”—to which I asked, “Who is the leader of your gang?” They pointed to one guy and I said, “Then he is your captain.”

The kids were called “latchkey kids”, kids who had no parents at home sometimes and were on their own. This was bad for them—such as one girl who was raped. The gang asked me to go with them to visit her in the hospital.

I reached the mothers of the kids in the apartment house by the church and called a meeting of the mothers with the landlord as there were many problems in the apartments, things needed fixing. The landlord was the political chairman of the Housing Committee in Newark—who was a slum lord.

In such a way I could cooperate with the mothers, and did so as they became workers in a thrift shop near the apartment building, in a storefront I had obtained for them to rent. They were involved in the pre-school program, one of the first ones in Newark, along with the senior citizen program, established and funded in the “War on Poverty.” Mayor Addonizio, who had an older mother, told me he was glad we started a program for older people.

* * *

There were problems between police and black persons, such as one man who came to me at the church. He said he was accused of pushing drugs but said he was not doing that. Police came to arrest him at his home. I looked out the window and saw a policeman plant drugs in the garbage can outside his house. They arrested the man for drug possession. I had to plead for his innocence in the case.

I always tried to put myself in the place of these persons of another race—to sense what they felt with some kind of empathy.

At times I was the only white person in attendance at events, such as when I was honored by being seated at the head table at a Father Divine free food dinner. Father Divine was a black who claimed “I am God”—when most blacks wanted to say “I am a man!” or “I am a woman!” or “I am a human being as you are!” or “I am entitled to the same rights and privileges that you are!”

Thus the Civil Rights cause was alive in America. In Newark, as across the nation, there was a great social unrest. In one ward of Newark a rally was held to form a protest organization opposing blacks from entering their area. They were vigilantes policing their neighborhoods. At the rally I heard and witnessed hatred against black persons. Emotions ran high in that crowd.

The racial fighting turned to violence. One incident ignited the fires, when a black man was shot and killed by a Newark police officer. This erupted into looting and shooting. Downtown stores were stripped of merchandise. White versus black. Fires were set. In the housing projects there were snipers. The battle was on.

National Guards were called in to Newark to patrol the streets. On South Orange Avenue there was a black Muslim Mosque which was shot up because it was claimed there were arms and ammunition—which there were not. I had eaten at a restaurant owned and run by Muslims—and was treated with courtesy, given the anti-white attitudes that prevailed.

Members of the Greater Newark Council of Churches—clergy—were asked to take to the streets to help maintain order and bring hope for peace to the citizens. I joined in that. As I walked, across the street I saw my friend, the black bishop of the storefront church. We waved to each other. He said, “Hello, my brother,” to which I answered, “Hello, my brother.”

Groups were formed—some with radical motives—to bring inter-racial cooperation and social change. One such group included Tom Hayden, a social activist. (He was married to actress Jane Fonda.) I heard that there was a meeting of them in two bars, blacks in one and whites in another. A mulatto guy ran between them letting each group know what the other was doing. I guess they chose him because he was a racial mix—black and white.

And, too, there was talk of the churches being invaded during worship services by protestors blaming the churches for not reaching and helping the community. We were made more aware of the need for our personal part.

* * *

In retrospect, I grew up in a town where there were few black persons, and I had little idea of what discrimination they faced. I got along okay with the black kids—especially one whose first name was Harold also, like my name. I had a lot to learn about what was really happening between the races here in America.

When I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed down in the South, at Jacksonville, Florida, I was on a bus going back to the base. I sat on the back seat of the bus next to a black man, also a sailor. The bus driver said I should move forward on the bus—before he would move the bus. I said, “This man is a sailor in the U.S. Navy, serving in the military as I am.” He moved the bus.

I recall a black woman, Rosa Parks, did move forward in a bus down South. Such were the peaceful protest demonstrations done by just one person. More demonstrations led to changes such as school integration, sit-ins at restaurants and other public places which were designated for “Whites Only” or “Blacks Only.” Attitudes such as “white is right” and “blacks get back” had to be changed.

* * *

The call went out from the Southern Leadership Conference, headed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, to work for social change and cooperation between races. I recall visiting a black woman in Newark. She had just two pictures on her wall: one of Dr. Martin Luther King, the other one of John F. Kennedy. She said, “They are my hope.”

The Greater Newark Council of Churches called us to go to Alabama to join Dr. King in the March to Montgomery, to be a peaceful demonstration. When we got off the airplane at Selma, Alabama, we were met with protests. The newspapers called us “Communists” who had come south to stir up trouble. We were not there to make trouble, but to overcome it. We sang, “We shall overcome … someday we shall overcome.” And I was not a Communist. In fact, I was with Navy at Inchon during the Korean War—fighting against the Communists!

We marched along the way from Selma to Montgomery. There we heard the rousing speech by Dr. King advocating peaceful change in society for the good of all races of people. Later, I was to go with great crowds of people gathered on the Washington Mall to hear Dr. King speak again. Soon after, Dr. King was shot and killed—but his dream lives on to become reality.

What character will you portray in this play of life?

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