Fifty-three years ago today, I sat in my English class in Dallas and doodled spirals on my notebook. The next week would be Thanksgiving, and I was dreaming about my four-day holiday. One year earlier, my family had moved to Dallas from Baltimore, and I thought we had landed in a different universe — in a place where kids of color attended separate schools, in a place where drinking fountains were marked “white” and “colored.” I had never seen those signs before.
A few desks were empty that day. The President of the United States was in town, and my classmates had gone to Dealey Plaza to watch the motorcade. Our teacher, Mrs. Rudd, always followed her lesson plans, but that day was different. She turned on the radio. “Our president and our governor have been shot,” the announcer said. Then he said something about Parkland Hospital. And then, “The President is dead.”
I didn’t hear anything after that. I stared out the window looking for signs of life. The playground was empty. There were no cars on the street. It was as if a bomb had dropped. (I feel much the same way now.)
We weren’t dismissed from school. After English, I went to Latin where Mrs. Vernon insisted on giving us a quiz, and then to Geometry for a test. Some children were crying as they tried to calculate circumferences.
Students burst into the halls between classes. I heard one boy say, “I’m glad he was shot, because he was Catholic.” The intensity of his hatred reverberated against the walls, the venom in his voice palpable. I stood frozen in fear as I watched him and his buddies saunter down the hall.
Over fifty years have passed, and I no longer hear about Catholics as the targets of hate. Now that poison is thrust at Muslims and Latinos and African Americans and Gays and People with Disabilities. Anyone and everyone who is labeled different. Have we moved back to signs on drinking fountains?
I’m still frightened by the bigotry that continues to thrive in our country. I see no guidance from the president-elect or his appointees in reversing this trend. After Kennedy was assassinated, I never thought our country lacked leadership. I question that now.
I don’t want to end this post with a lament. It’s not 1963, and I’m not the petrified kid I was then. You’ve probably read the many ways you and I can take a stand against hateful acts and the people who propagate them. Here are only four of the many organizations involved in this effort.
Southern Poverty Law Center
American Civil Liberties Union
Bend the Arc Jewish Action
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
There are many others. Most important is to do something. Be vigilant. Protest. Join. And don’t leave anyone out.