Jan 19, 2009

Historic Times...

I'm thrilled at the events we're witnessing this week.  On this MLK birthday, I'm reminded of a trip I took a long time ago, even though it sometimes feels very recent.

In the summer of 1960, my midshipman "cruise" took me to Little Creek, Virginia, for four weeks of Marine Corps indoctrination followed by four weeks in Corpus Christi, Texas, for aviation indoctrination.  We were released in Corpus Christi to return home and given bus fare, which in my case was around $65.  To save money, another midshipman and I decided to hitchhike back to New York state.

To put the times in context, there was a presidential campaign in progress with Kennedy and Nixon vying to occupy the white house.  Kennedy had expressed the notion that a new Civil Rights Act was needed, since the South was still largely segregated and Jim Crow laws were widespread.  The historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision had been handed down six years prior.  But school desegregation was proceeding at a snail's pace.

It was against this backdrop that Guy Wyser-Pratte, a classmate of mine at the University of Rochester, and I decided to hitchhike across the deep south to Beaufort, South Carolina, and then up the eastern seaboard.  The reason for the Beaufort destination was to visit my brother Bill, a Marine Corps jet pilot, who was stationed there.

The trip was an eye opener.  At one point, we got a ride with a Life magazine photographer who was covering the violence associated with school desegregation in Louisiana.  We saw segregated restrooms, segregated drinking fountains, "whites only" signs on motels and other public facilities.  At a diner in Walterboro, South Carolina, we saw a bus pull in to the parking lot.  The white passengers came into the diner; the black passengers went to the kitchen door to place their orders since they were not permitted to eat in the diner.  It was the first time I had witnessed the harsh reality of a racially-segregated society.

I later served part of my navy years in Oklahoma and saw the last vestiges of overt discrimination against Native Americans.  I remember seeing a "No Indians" sign in a restaurant shortly after I arrived in Oklahoma.

These recollections are about a time that's really quite recent in historic perspective.  But the good news is that we live in a nation that, in spite of its flaws, is not afraid to reinvent itself.  And we have a Constitution that empowers us to do so.

We find ourselves today on the threshhold of an amazing and historic occasion -- the inauguration of the nation's first African-American President.  And he really is, in the fullest sense, African-American -- the son of a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas.  God bless our new President and God bless the United States of America!

1 comment:

John Pape said...

Commander Mead- nice website. I don't always agree with your opinions but I do enjoy reading them.

JP