Martin, I’m sorry they killed you

Dear Martin,

I was five-going-on-six when you were murdered.

I was a little white girl living in a nice working-to-middle-class seacoast neighborhood of Quincy, Massachusetts.

I can’t say I remember anything about your murder, although growing up three murders were never far from anyone’s recall. First President Kennedy, then you, then the President’s brother Robert.

I remember understanding that John Kennedy was killed because he was president, and Robert Kennedy was killed because he wanted to be president.

And you were killed because you were black.

In my seacoast community, the one where Mr. Boudreau from up the street would go out clamming on the flats at low tide, nobody was black, although I think back then the nomenclature was “negro.”

So in a way, Martin, you were the first black person I ever knew.

When I went to camp the summer after fourth grade, there was a black girl in my cabin, although I didn’t recognize her as black. Her name was Charlotte, and she had freckles, but you didn’t see the freckles right away because her skin was almost as dark as her freckles. Until I met her I thought only Irish people had freckles. Charlotte was very pretty, I thought.

I used to watch “Soul Train” because I liked the music and the kids on it were older than me and looked cool and danced great. I didn’t realize everybody on “Soul Train” was black until my father pointed out that everybody was black on “Soul Train.”  Then I realized that everybody was black.

I grew up with a father who was not racist but prejudiced. He once told me, “You can date anyone you want, but don’t bring home a black man.” He also wouldn’t allow one of my closest high school friends into the house “because he’s a faggot and I don’t want him sittin’ on my toilet seat.”

I got invited to the Honor Roll Dance of a private boys school junior year. One of his friends asked one of my friends to the dance as well, and the four of us went together. On the way home we got lost because the dance was in Boston and I only knew how to get back to Quincy on the T, so at two o’clock in the morning four white kids in prom clothes driving a gold LTD down Blue Hill Avenue were scared witless because Blue Hill Avenue was “where black people live.”

During the summer after high school my best friend and I went to see an Eddie Murphy movie way over at the movie theater in Somerville. A bunch of still-in-high-school girls sat behind us. When the movie started, one of them said, “Eddie Murphy is really good looking–for a niggah.” They all snorted with laughter.

When I set out on my own, I lived in a wonderful apartment in Dorchester near the Ashmont T. I worked in Foxboro at the time and so every morning I had to drive down that Blue Hill Avenue to get to Interstate 95. For a month I was petrified while driving down Blue Hill Avenue, because I grew up in a house that differentiated between the races, and because I grew up at a time when the news was full of scary scary pictures of really angry people doing mean and hurtful things to people of the other race. I was convinced that I was the only white person driving down Blue Hill Avenue, and every day I gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles went white. Because I knew “this is where black people live,” I was petrified that something might happen to me.

Then after that month, after nothing happened to me, I took a breath, and looked around. And I saw them. All the black people. The little girls with the many braids and the brightly colored barrettes, standing at the bus stop clutching a lunch box in one hand and daddy’s hand in the other. And the dads stood at those bus stops with their little girls as hundreds of cars drove past, not embarrassed, not annoyed, just being dads.

Until about five months ago I was the only white person in the condo complex I live in now. I had been living here for maybe three years when it dawned on me that I was the only white person in it. Pat lived next to us for a while, with her mother, and her two sons, and her daughter and her daughter’s two daughters. Since we shared a wall, we introduced ourselves. Pat invited me in to see her place. It was very clean and very nice. She wanted to get my opinion of her new bedroom furnishings, whether I thought as she did that her new bedspread was too large. It was a beautiful bedspread, kind of Venetian style with gold and purple swirls. It was, as she thought, too big. She didn’t have the sales slip anymore, and bought it at a store that I buy things at. I said, “Well, you still have the tags on it, you can still bring it back.” She said, “A black woman? Bring back a bedspread with no sales slip? You white, girl, you white.” Then we both laughed.

She had two teenage sons. They were black teenage males, which is why they were sullen and didn’t talk to me. And then I stopped looking at them the way the media presented them and just looked at them the way they were, and saw that they were only teenage males, and that’s why they were sullen and didn’t talk to me. They weren’t tough guys at all, and one I’m pretty sure was gay.

A number of years ago I struck up a lovely, albeit whispered, conversation with a a New Yorker  in the Relaxation Lounge of the Elemis Spa at Mohegan Sun. She was black, I was white, she was from New York, I am from Boston, we both didn’t win the World Series the year before. Her 23 year-old daughter, a Marine sergeant, had just came back from a seven-month tour of duty (in you know where…), and this woman admitted to me that she couldn’t really remember any of the last seven months.

Martin, I’m telling you all this because maybe if they hadn’t killed you all those years ago, things would’ve been different. Had your peaceful but insistent tactics of standing up for yourself and what you believe in—the United States of America and freedom and equality for all of its people—been able to continue, then maybe you would have been able to diffuse the ignorance between the whites and the blacks, and maybe the anger and fear stemming from that ignorance wouldn’t have been so angry and fearful, or lasted so long.

The America that you wanted, that dream that you had, the one that was “deeply rooted in the American dream,” is still a tantalizing vision, one that maybe we have started to see for ourselves, but is still sadly distant.

And that’s why I’m sorry they killed you.

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