Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
"Strength to Love," 1963
When the black man looked at me in that wasteland of a downtown, with its shattered windows and debris-strewn streets, I knew exactly what he saw, because he told me.
"Clueless white reporter," he seethed.
My timing, I admit, was bad.
We were being herded, a whole mob of us, off the streets by police with shields and face masks. The officers would advance in a single line for a block or two, shields raised, then stop and aim their guns before advancing again.
During one of the halts, a young man in front of me ripped his shirt off and threw it to the ground.
"Fuck peace!" he screamed at the people peering over the roof of a nearby building. Someone had said they were Klan members, and he appeared to believe it. He hurled threats and ugly epithets skyward, Tupac Shakur blaring from his boombox.
I was sure the Klan members were on their way home by now, to whatever places breed professional hatemongers. The people on the top of the building were just surveying the melee.
But I'm white, my new acquaintance reminded me. And we just didn't see things the same way.
I saw fifty robed white people on the courthouse steps exercising their First Amendment rights. He saw them advancing the oppression of his people.
I saw cops grabbing young black men for mouthing off and thought it was overreaction. He saw it as brutality.
I saw two terrified little boys he was ushering through those wild streets, and I thought he was crazy. How could he bring children to such a violent place? I didn't ask, but he sensed my disapproval. When I asked for a quote, he responded angrily, with one hand firmly on each boy's shoulder.
"Clueless white reporter."
I didn't want to cover the KKK's Memphis rally.
In two years of reporting on social and civil rights issues in the South, I had confronted enough racists without hoods. I didn't have any desire to hang around a bunch of passé nitwits from the hate-group circuit who were already getting more publicity than they deserved from the local media, my newspaper included.
No one expected much to happen anyway. A few days before the rally, Mayor Willie Herenton told reporters he expected the event to be peaceful, "something of minor importance." He drew attention instead to city-sponsored events commemorating the January 15 birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated in Memphis thirty years earlier.
Most religious leaders and civil rights groups, including the NAACP, told people to ignore the Klan. Only two organized groups had threatened to stage protests, and neither worried the authorities. A small group from the Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence planned a silent protest. And Memphians Against Racism, a loosely knit group of mostly young, mostly white people with a liberal bent, didn't seem to know what they were going to do.
The cops talked to the organized groups. But they didn't count on the provocative news coverage, which brought out more unpredictable groups the gangbangers, the malcontents, the suggestible. On the day of the rally, the "bad guys" the Klan just stood on the courthouse steps talking. The "good guys," the anti-Klan protesters, were much scarier.
They were a sea of diverse faces, especially for Memphis. They were also crowded, unruly, and agitated. Some of the protesters started screaming at the Klan even before they reared their coned heads. Some had tried to smuggle in weapons. Some shoved. Some danced. Some held signs to provoke the KKK. The Ghandi Institute protesters stood in silence, not reacting to anything. The leader for Memphians Against Racism taunted both the Klan and those who tried to keep the peace.
"Fuck the police!" he yelled.
I left shortly after the Klan took the courthouse steps. The crowd had rattled something in me, something I wanted to escape rather than confront. It wasn't hate, not like the Klan had hoped.
It was fear.
I set off for an organized labor gathering about two miles away. Soon afterward, some protesters descended on a man bent on an apparent suicide mission, wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and passing out racist literature. The police line collapsed and sheer chaos ensued. People ran, trampled, screamed, and hurled bricks through windows.
My cell phone rang shortly after the melee started.
"Get over here!" another reporter barked, her voice hardly audible in the noisy mob. "They're tear-gassing everybody!"
By the time I returned to the place where free speech had turned violent, the courthouse steps were empty. The street was filled with police vehicles, fire trucks, and reporters. There were huge holes in the windows of neighboring buildings, and glass littered the sidewalks. A few public officials wandered the street with newspeople in tow, not missing the chance to comment on the chaos.
I turned a corner. Then someone fired a gun, and I ducked into a doorway. A few seconds later a ragtag crew of mostly young people rushed past, and I joined them, the cops at our backs. That's when I approached the young father.
He told me I was part of the problem. I said I was just doing my job. We ducked onto a side street and exchanged words. We quickly attracted an audience, including a blond film student who stuck a video camera in his face. Once we stopped fighting and starting talking, however, she and her entourage got bored and left.
Then the young father shared something. He said he hadn't brought his sons there to endanger them. He brought them to awaken them to their lot in life. This is the easy kind of racism to detect, he explained the authorities protecting racists while black men are harassed on the public streets, tear-gassed, and shoved against police cruisers.
The other kind of racism, the kind that makes you casually dismissed or resented or passed over for jobs, isn't so blatant. And you can't effectively fight the second before experiencing the first.
I knew then why he had called me clueless. As I looked at the scared boys, at the dried tributary of tears down the dusty cheek of one, I told the young father he was right after all. He couldn't teach me like he was teaching his children. We just didn't see things the same way.
I didn't want to see this. I didn't want to know how far we haven't come. I had sought out the young father because I needed to find something redeeming about the whole experience, even if it was just the realization that I couldn't understand.
I still doubt his boys learned anything positive from the Klan. It's more likely they learned something from the conversation their father had with a white reporter on the fringe of the fray: Everyone is capable of respect, even the clueless.