22. June 2005 · Comments Off on In Another Country · Categories: General, History, Memoir

I have followed the trial and conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, for his involvement in the deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi forty summers ago with much of the same feelings I had, reading the story as it unfolded in the Los Angeles Times, when I was ten years old. That particular story— and the whole civil rights movement— was almost the very first news story I remember taking a horrified interest in, curled up in an armchair at Hilltop House, by the plate glass window that ran most of the length of the living room. Grape vines grew over a pergola that shaded the terrace outside, and beyond the tight-packed streets of Sunland and Tujunga, with the straight arrow of Foothill Boulevard slashing across it, were the dusty blue and jumbled range of mountains, Mt. Gleason and Camelback Mountain.

From the things I remember reading in the Times first hand, I must have regularly begun reading it that summer, absorbing the fat, information-sodden pages of the Times methodically: the front page, and the first section from back to front, then the editorial pages, which often featured a funny cartoon. I liked the political cartoons: I knew who President Johnson was, and the insufferable Charles DeGaulle, and I had read enough history here and there to have an awareness of people and events shaping the world immediately outside my own life. Not from television, though— Mom and Dad did not believe in television, would not have one for another five years and even then we did not watch the evening news. Only after reading the editorials would I go to the comics; my favorite was Rick O’Shay, with Gasoline Alley a close second. Mom let me cut out things that interested me— by the time I got to the paper, she and Dad were already done with it.

I read about the three missing men, how they had been pulled over, and arrested, but released… and then just vanished. When their car was found nearby, burnt out, the menace fairly breathed up from the newsprint. How could three fit young men just… vanish, and no one in the county know anything? When their bodies were found, deeply buried under an earth dam, it was clear that a great deal of work had gone into concealing them, that a great many local people must have been involved, and that they were deliberately murdered. And there was worse to come: church bombings, mysterious building fires, ritual cross burnings, protest marchers having dogs set on them, uniformed men wading into crowds and clubbing perfectly well-behaved people who asked only for the rights that were due them as citizens. It was a summer of ugliness, and my reaction to it all was… these people are from Mars. They are not any part of my world.

It’s not that where I had grown up was a halcyon isle of racial tolerance, or my own family particularly innocent of prejudice. Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie, and probably Grandpa Jim had the usual set of racial and anti-Semitic attitudes typical of working-class British immigrants. Only Grandpa Al had voiced them, and only until Mom had asked that he not talk that way in front of us, something which had happened so long ago that I actually was in college before I encountered real-life, in your-face actually bigoted verbal nastiness. (And I was so astounded at what I heard that I asked them to please repeat what they had just said.) I knew of prejudice, but encountering it in the real-life flesh was something else again.

As for the community where we lived; Kevin Connor described it as economically working class to no-class. Sun Valley, Sunland and Tujunga were mostly white, with lashings of Hispanic, and lots of Asians, a fair number of Jews and a sprinkling of black middle-class; again, hardly the epitome of multicultural splendor. I am fairly sure there were bigots and racists among them, but I really do not remember anyone in my personal world making a big thing about having the core of their being threatened at having to share a polling place, a school-room, a lunchroom counter or a drinking fountain with someone whose skin was a couple of shades darker. It was an issue so far off the table it wasn’t even in the room. Making such a fuss, burning a cross, beating up on someone with darker skin would have been seen as ignorant, no-class and… what was to Mom the worst crime… really, really rude.

The scattering of African-Americans I did know— all irreproachably accomplished and middle-class— included people like one of Mom’s Girl Scout troop leaders (during that phase when Mom was the neighborhood chairman), one of the teachers at Vineland School (how a young, hip black man wound up on staff at a school where all the other teachers were middle-aged white women in rayon dresses was a mystery for the ages, but us students liked him because he was hip and funny, and would hop up on the benches in the assembly area to address the adoring throng, an act of lese majestie that would never occur to any of the other, more strait-laced staff), and a woman at church who was, hands down, physically the most purely beautiful woman I ever laid eyes on in real life.

So I read about Mississippi and the south burning, read about lynching mobs and the Klan burning crosses, and fat-bellied Southern politicos having a cow because such people as Mom’s troop leader, and that wonderful, funny teacher… wanted to vote; their right, as citizens of a free country. And I looked around at my family, where I lived, and went to school and thought…
These people are from Mars. And these days, it sometimes seems that they are from somewhere, even farther out than Mars.

Comments closed.