from A J O U R N A L O F T H E P L A G U E Y E A R
June 5, 2020
Greensboro 1960 Woolworth’s NCA&T lunch sit-ins
The specter haunting our own day, comes from April ’68 and the killing of Martin Luther King.
These murders, lynchings, political assassinations at the hands of racists, civil war recidivists, cops, sheriffs, all resemble each other, the present overwriting the past once again. Fifty one years, and one black president later, and it’s George Floyd, pressed face to the pavement, having his life slowly choked away by a shave-headed, blue-suited white man, clinical in his murderous dispassion.
In April ‘68, after the shock spun into rage, and things began to burn, on a street along the UNC-G campus in Greensboro, N. C. I walked past the gutted remains of the hardware store where I’d bought light bulbs and a frying pan, through the stink of petrol, paint, and wet charred wood and the sight of fused pink fiberglass, like overcooked cotton candy. Downtown, near one of the black sections of the racial checkerboard of the city, a car dealer had been firebombed as well, and a couple of other places.
Eight years before I arrived from up north for grad school, black students from North Carolina A. and T. led the sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter that over time led to the desegregation of commercial establishments all over the south. But there was a hard residue of resentment and resistance among the white population, not very well concealed: you couldn’t rent a decent apartment in the city that wasn’t advertised openly in the paper as “Whites Only.” Which we did, on first arriving in the fall of ‘66, having a two year old, little money, and not much time to look further before classes started. Not without feeling like shit for capitulating.
Our landlord was a very nice, very accommodating bigot, who was happy to rent to a more or less respectable, because educated, I presumed white couple—even if we were yankees. The people downstairs, a white waitress with a couple of wild kids and her sister, were pleasant and friendly as well.
Of course there was the incident with the guy they threw out of one of their frequent parties, who came back with a pistol and shot a hole through their front door. And the one, where a boyfriend took umbrage with something said by a guy parked with the sister, on the side street just below our window and began punching him in the face, with screaming and yelling. And the time we came back from a summer vacation and found that her kids had set fire to the building’s unused garage, which was pretty well gutted. Which was not so long after they’d ransacked our apartment, pilfering from the few possessions we had.
As to the garage fire, it was apparently already history by the time we got back; no-one deemed it worthy of comment or explanation. By then I’d begun to think that a black neighborhood would have been better all around, saving us some useless guilt, money for rent, and less nerve-wracking in the bargain.
Anyway, over the summer we’d come into some money, and were able to move into a nicer apartment with no restrictions, just across the golf course from the girls’ dorms on the campus .
Sam Shepherd said, not long before he died, that anyone who thought the sixties were fun couldn’t have been there. There were occasions, like the arrivals of the Beatles and Stones. But then there was the other, a sort of geography like a large sketchy, international neighborhood, where similar things went on at once and where history, whatever that meant, was more or less present on every block, an odd inescapable presence that could pop up in the most ordinary transactions.
One of those times when everybody had to choose a side, and you had to be ready for the consequences of that in the most personal way. People wore their hair long as a political statement, and other people saw that and treated them as friend or enemy on sight. You wore or spoke your signs, with various insignia, and others read them and assumed they knew who you were and weren’t entirely wrong.
For a few months that fall and winter of ’67 and ’68, things in our local lives, levelled out, at least financially. We had friends and Ann’s brother and cousin for Thanksgiving dinner in our new apartment on South Aycock; we drank bourbon and red wine, sweating because cooking the turkey for several hours had turned the apartment into a second oven. On sunny days, even deep into the mild North Carolina fall, we could see the girl golfers hacking away at the turf on their own course across the street. I was able to get in some work on a new story that I was hoping would fall into shape in time for inclusion in my thesis, a collection, due that spring. Even with the new baby, our son, born in the heat of the previous summer on July 3rd, we were handling life, sort of, juggling facts and emotions, like my mother’s funeral, just before we returned to the old apartment and the gutted garage that no-one seemed to notice.
We have a photo of our daughter Reid from that time, a little cherub, sitting amidst a field of dandelions, golds, and green and her honey blond curls. Two guests at Thanksgiving, Ann’s cousin Ted, and her brother, Bruce, were in the service, Bruce on pass from his AIT at Fort Bragg, and Ted from an airbase in South Carolina. So the Vietnam war was at the table, another familiar presence, overwritten on all our childhoods, when our fathers went off to WWII, Ann’s and Bruce’s father John—a WWII fighter pilot and wing commander, my father, Harry, an army sergeant, who died in a tank on maneouvres after the war ended, and Ted’s father Don, a navy captain. All the wars seemed intertwined, and sometimes your family loyalties, ideology, place of origin and general acquaintance with the zeitgeist were so muddled they were impossible to keep straight.
Faces of history, past and present, at table for the celebration. Still we kept them in their place and ate, laughed and drank, and I suppose gave thanks we’d made it this far.
In the ‘60’s there was the sense of the underlying tension winding tighter and tighter, as if we were all living on the edge, and that every action, whether a King speech, a demonstration, a peace march, a boycott would inevitably produce a brutal reaction. The two wars, Vietnam and the civil war on people of color, crossed in the person of Muhammad Ali, who spoke for many young white men as well, when he said he had no quarrel with no Viet Cong. Maybe white people have lost that sense of immanence and settled into complacency, without the threat of being drafted to fight the country’s wars, and when our violent tendencies, state sanctioned, and ideologically driven are played out in distant places or on the bodies of people of some other color.
After November 23, 1963 when the potential assassins broke cover in the person of Lee Harvey Oswald, we collectively knew, as black people had known forever, that the haters and assassins were out there, waiting for their moment. If you looked deeply enough, even in the nihilist blank of Oswald’s white face, you could see the lineaments, however sublimated, of America’s long civil wars of class, race and ideology, in the killing of a president who had spoken on behalf of civil rights and equality.
In Memphis on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King walked out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and was shot and killed by another white racist assassin, allegedly one James Earl Ray, who at any rate was later tried, convicted and sentenced to life for the crime.
The days of rage came, a storm blowing through cities north and south, with protest, marches, rioting, and the prime weapon of rebellion, fire, lighting up the night sky. And in Greensboro, the fire bombings that within days led to a dawn to dusk curfew, the proclamation that being caught with a gas can or weapon was cause for automatic arrest; and then the National Guard, cordoning off the entire downtown.
There is a lot of talk about history, and what counts as a “historic event,” or “moment,”these days. But in my experience and knowledge, and the feeling of having been through it, American history is people in the streets, rage, burning buildings and “the rattle of small arms fire in the night,” as Robert Stone had it and a line of troops in those same streets, M-16’s at Port Arms. At North Carolina A & T, the predominantly black college, down Spring Garden Street from where we now lived, armed black students were holed up in their dorms, exchanging gunfire across a no-man’s land with white police. A white friend of ours taught there and walked between the lines to get to his classes, laughing later about wondering whether he’d get it in the back, from the cops or in the face from his students taking him for some other whitey. He dismissed praise: he was adjunct, and if he didn’t show up to teach his comp students, he didn’t get paid.
One wearying thing about the curfew was that they’d shut down all the bars and liquor stores leaving us un-high and dry; our creative writing program fuelled, like most, as much by booze and pot as talent and inspiration. One local undergraduate knew the back roads, so we each donated a share to fund a run in the dark of night north across the Virginia line, where everything was still open. Charlie returned jubilantly with his bootlegged cargo, having outmaneouvred every roadblock, state cop, and local constable, between Greensboro and the Virginia line, like Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road.” I scored a fifth of George Dickel bourbon, my then drink of choice, and one of my two concessions to “going native,” the other being an inexplicable addiction to the Hillbilly tv show, “Hee-Haw,” which was so self-delightedly corny it was often hilarious.
Normally we drank at a beer and cheeseburger joint called The Pickwick up Spring Garden Street in walking distance from our old apartment, a gathering place for students and faculty from the program, led by our fiction teacher, Fred Chappel, a brilliant southern writer whose solidarity with his students stretched seamlessly from classroom to bar-room. The bartender was a big, blonde amiable guy, named Marvin, friendly enough that Ann and I had gone in one afternoon and taken his suggestion, over a few beers, for a local dentist, a friend of his. It was a fun place, where you could let off a little steam, in laughter and the kind of intense conversation that writing students thrive on, acid put-downs of sell-out major writers, and impassioned defences of obscure favorites.
In time the ’68 Greensboro stand-off settled back to a simmering truce, largely fostered by the white commercial interests whose passion for ‘business as usual’ overrode any aversion to making concessions.
Toward the end of our stay, when most of the students had headed home, I went back to the Pickwick for a farewell beer. Neither I nor –I suspected–most of the students had ever been in the bar once school was over, but I assumed I’d be recognized and at least greeted in a friendly way.
It was a long narrow, dim place, quiet, and unoccupied except for a few local drinkers in fedoras at the back of the room. I sat in a booth, with a book, and looked up when Marvin came to the table, but he said nothing, just stood there waiting, and I felt a coolness that I hadn’t sensed there before. There was a collective look from the men at the end of the room, but nothing was said: I got the feeling that I was somehow out of season, all the previous bonhomie and good will withdrawn, as if our lease on the place had expired at semester’s end when these tenants– the real tenants– could move back in.
Marvin brought my beer, set it down without comment, I paid; he went back behind the bar, and I opened my book. Time passed, the beer was cold, and I sank into my book, to the murmured conversation of the four or five men around the last table. The outside door opened and a black man came in; he was shirtless, his back glistening with sweat, as if he’d been working. The voices at the end fell silent. The man sat on a stool. As he had with me, Marvin moved in front of the man and waited silently. He ordered a beer. Marvin poured it from the tap, set it down in front of him and moved down the bar. There would have been a time, not long before, when he wouldn’t have been served, would have been ordered to leave the bar. I realized that he was the first black person I ever remembered seeing in The Pickwick, which now seemed a whole other place than the one I’d once revelled in.
Even something so trivial as buying a beer in a white man’s bar had a whole history to it, and I could feel it in the tense silence. Impalpable as it might be, the silence, the hard sidelong squints, the very hatred composed a presence, like an invisible wall to be forced through for such a simple act: I was struck by his courage. Before long, the man dropped some change on the counter , and left without a word. From the table at the back, something was said, and there was a barked laugh. The man’s empty glass stayed where it was, and when I looked at Marvin his gaze returned mine without expression. I knew though, once I’d left, his glass wouldn’t be washed, but dropped directly into the garbage can behind the bar.
So that’s what I recalled, confronted once again, with the murderous rage and cold hatred, that underlies what we call racism, that hard, belief driven ideology that has yielded very little since the loss of the civil war, and expresses itself once more in the appalling image, both symbolic and fatal fact, of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead.
The murder, and the belief that enables it, which we would like to think is geographically confined or subject to some sort of reason or persuasion or, God forbid “conversation”, is as much a part of the American ideology as the alternate ideals of equality, fairness and justice.
In the sixties, Stokely Carmichael was roundly condemned for stating, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” But he was simply stating a very obvious fact, and if he’d added political murder, and state- sanctioned lynching of black men, women and children, that too would have been a fact.
Instead of thinking we can persuade, hope or legislate this away, maybe we should confront it head on, acknowledge its ugly existence, and fight the battle against it, inch by grudging inch, until it is driven back into its dark cave to sulk in silence, unsupported, despised and universally condemned.
Images, credits and sources: For educational purposes only
“Silence benefits oppression” – Street art courtesy of LM Photographer, Hannah Biller
“we is equals” integrated canteen lunches: Walter MacNamee Getty images
Baltimore 2020 collage: ajr.org, Collage by Alex Stoller
198 On Fire. Lee Balterman Life Pictures Collection,(getty images)
Taking A Stand By Sitting Down: Howard Unviersity News Service.
Harassment of students protesting at Greensboro: history.edu
Columbia University students sit-in protests: rarenewspapers.com
Dr. Martin Luther King’s fineral: A wooden farm wagon drawn by two local mules carries the casket of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King during a funeral procession in Atlanta, Ga., April 9, 1968. People walked the three and a half miles through Atlanta from Ebenezer to Morehouse. Photograph Associated Press.
Pennsylvania National Guardsmen: Pittsburgh’s Hill District April 8, 1968, ‘restoring order’ Photograph uncredited, Associated Press.
Stokely Carmichael: Ron Briley, History News Network from his article “Stokely Carmichael, Largely Forgotten” published in Hollywood Progressive.