Why We Cried
H. Scott Prosterman
It made me feel a lot better to see that picture of Jesse Jackson crying on Election Night; not just “welling up” like Donovon McNabb admitted to, but really crying. That’s what I was doing for about 5 minutes or more. It caught me completely by surprise.
At The Chieftain in San Francisco, I think I started it. Why me? Why so much emotion?
Unlike most people, I was not at all confident. I was nervous all day about another big fix. I was also worried that America’s racial fixations would prevent many people from voting for a black man. Thankfully, all of that anxiety began to dissipate when the returns started coming in, and by the time the polls closed, San Francisco was a scene of mass elation. It was Christmas, New Years and the last day of school all at once. Oh yes, and that belated World Series party that didn’t quite happen in 2002.
Jesse Jackson was much more deeply invested in this election than most people. So was I. I didn’t march with Martin Luther King; I’m not black and I didn’t share Jackson’s experiences.
But I was in Memphis when King was killed, and became Bar Mitzvah there just five weeks later. I went to segregated schools until the 3rd grade, and remember “colored” water fountains and restrooms. I remember segregated dining facilities in restaurants when we took vacations driving through Mississippi and Alabama, and eating with the “coloreds” on one trip when the front dining room was crowded. We didn’t stop on the way out of town.
I also remember Mary Sue Guy, our black nanny and housekeeper for much of my young life. I remember how she cheered and hooted and howled during MLK’s March on Washington Speech, and not fully understanding. I remember seeing footage of that speech in recent years and recalling my perceptions of it as a child.
Mary had moved to Memphis from Holly Springs, Mississippi as a teenage girl to make a better life for herself. She started school when I was about 12, and my 3 siblings and I would help her with her homework. That was my first teaching experience. As Mary Sue Guy was more than a virtual family member, we learned about many of her hurtful experiences under Jim Crow in Memphis and Mississippi.
I remember when Ross Barnett tried to keep James Meredith out of Ole Miss and TV reports of the terrifying riots. When I’ve watched the great Juan Williams documentary, Eyes On The Prize, I can remember seeing the same news clips from the local TV station in Memphis that I watched as a child.
I remember George Wallace trying to keep a black woman from enrolling in grad school at Alabama.
When Avon Elementary was first integrated in 1963, there were 3 police cars for one black girl – a first grader. By the end of the week, there were no cops, but a lot of ugly epitaphs. The “N” word was used frequently, with tones of vulgarity and hate.
White Station High School was about 5% black and about 35% Jewish. In the early 1970’s things still occurred that were supposed to have been illegal. This included brazen racism and anti-Semitism on the part of the coaches and some faculty members. At football practice, the “N” word was used regularly and Jews were given the same status as blacks. As the only Jew on the team for 2 years, I took the brunt of abuse, and was prompted to slug a teammate on one memorable occasion. It made me very angry, but I never felt sorry for myself.
I also remember the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which had brought King to Memphis. One day I was downtown for a dental visit with my father. After he was done with me he started on one of my brothers. I went downstairs to watch the “Garbage Workers” as we called them, marching single file down Main Street, carrying the iconic signs that read “I AM A MAN.” One of them stopped to ask if I knew “what this is all about.” I walked with him for a couple of blocks carrying the sign while he filled me in on “what this is all about.” My brother Steve said he had a similar experience that day while Dad worked on our other brother. We all went home with fresh fillings and fresh insight.
I remember taking a Bar Mitzvah lesson one day and then having a conversation afterward with Rabbi James A. Wax, the leader of our congregation. That same day, I came in from shooting hoops in the driveway, and saw the same Rabbi Wax on the 6 O’Clock News. He became the leader and point man for resolving the Sanitation Workers Strike, before, during and after King’s appearances in Memphis.
I also remember seeing Rabbi Wax on TV again the day after King had been killed in our hometown. He was leading a procession of the Memphis Ministers’ Association to City Hall for what became a dramatic and historic confrontation with Mayor Henry Loeb on national TV. The Rabbi told the Mayor that it was time to stop hiding behind the faćade of codes and laws that nurtured racism, and to start honoring the laws of Man.
Long term memories are alternately haunting or enriching. Election Night elicited the full spectrum. That’s why we cried.
H. Scott Prosterman