“My God, we’re just like the ‘good’ Germans” by Margery Prickett

25 Apr

I attended my first demonstration, picketing the downtown San Diego branch of the Bank of America in 1962, the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I was in high school, watching the news with my parents; police and firemen in Florida were spraying black people on the beach with huge fire hoses.

In those days in the South there were still black beaches and white beaches, black drinking fountains and white ones. Buses were integrated, but black people still sat in the back. Segregation existed throughout the South and de facto segregation existed in the North. I was seventeen and had never seen a black person up close. We lived in El Cajon, an all-white suburb of San Diego, and I had never visited the urban neighborhoods where other ethnic groups lived.

My dad got angry and said, “My God, we’re just like the ‘good’ Germans, sitting here doing nothing. Let’s go to a CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] meeting.” There for the first time, I met people who were involved in political action. They were registering voters, working on ending de facto segregation in housing, and pressuring the Bank of America to hire black people.

I became involved in the Bank of America project. We picketed the main branch in downtown San Diego and gave out leaflets to passers-by. People’s responses were as varied as are people themselves. Some threw old vegetables at us and called us communists and worse. Others asked questions and read the leaflets. Some joined us on the picket line.

We were a small group in a military town—where conformity was rewarded and dissenters were dismissed as “weirdos”—but there arose increasingly more small groups like ours in other cities and small towns. Then in 1963 Martin Luther King led the historic March on Washington. Laws were finally passed ending Jim Crow.

The summer after my graduation from high school, I joined a community organizing project in West Oakland. We lived in an old house in a black neighborhood, registering people to vote, and talking to them about the Vietnam War. It was quite humbling to meet sons and daughters of slaves and hear about their struggles. What they taught me was never to judge others because you never know what they have endured.

Despite its good intentions, our project was not well organized or defined. My main contribution was listening to the heart-wrenching and inspiring stories of the residents, who appreciated an empathetic audience.

Demonstrating against the war was very immediate for us. It wasn’t just to help the Vietnamese. (I’d never even heard of Vietnam before the war, which reminds me of a sign I saw at a demonstration: “WAR—How Americans Learn Geography”). Boys my age—friends—were in danger of being drafted into a war they didn’t believe in. One boy I knew shot off his toe so he wouldn’t be called on to shoot others. It was a horrible time. Like now, the government had the attitude, If you don’t support our troops, then you are against us. You are Other. You are the enemy.

Many were arrested just for demonstrating. Police came on college campuses. They even shot into crowds at Kent State in Ohio, killing several students. Democracy was threatened once again—the Bill of Rights, the right to assemble, the right to free speech and the press.

It was a sad time, seeing the wounded boys return—some lost their sanity. Some didn’t return. Others formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It was moving to see them “marching” in their wheelchairs and on crutches—their bodies hurt, but their spirits high.

Spirit. Maybe that’s what it’s about. Why do people gather together in churches? There seems to be a renewal of the spirit when people have a common goal. When people come together to show their concern, their love of peace, their anger at being manipulated and lied to. They no longer feel helpless, isolated.

People’s spirits are renewed and then they have the courage and optimism to return to their everyday lives, whatever they may be, with more consciousness, more heart, and more soul—and more energy to make a difference—whether they build houses with Habitat for Humanity or with a church group, or teach literacy, or just live more peacefully in their everyday interactions.

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