Saturday, January 26, 2013

Eyewitness To History

Michael Keith checking out his platter collection at WGST

Back in the early '60s I was a kid in junior high school in New York and my future husband, Michael, was working at Atlanta’s Radio WGST. In addition to his music program, he created a daily half-hour news show. It changed his life.  Michael had grown up in Greenville, South Carolina, in a world with very clear boundaries, in a segregated society. And while my world contained people of color, and the civil rights movement was something happening far away that we only knew from the six ‘o clock news, Michael did not go to school or even to church with people of color. The only black people he knew were the maids who worked for his family, and sometimes, the children of those women.

The Varsity Drive-in: WGST news team's favorite lunch spot in 1963.

      Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of JFK’s assassination? Michael does. He’d just had lunch with fellow radio man Dan Akens, at the Varsity, a drive-in joint on the Georgia Tech campus. The Varsity, which exists to this day,  featured car-hops with big personalities, like the one who for fifty years sang the menu to his customers, and the young Nipsy Russell who wore crazy outfits and entertained his customers and later became famous as a comedian.
President Obama ordering a burger at the Varsity today

     With President Kennedy’s election came awareness of the civil rights movement. It was the central theme of the local news in Atlanta. And Michael found a way to make it pay. The ABC Network paid for "actualities," short clips of newsmakers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Julian Bond expressing their views via the media. Naturally civil rights leaders like King made themselves available for reporters. And Michael, who received a tidy fee from the ABC network for each actuality used, was happy to help the civil rights leaders like King and Julian Bond get their message out. He spoke with them, and recorded their comments, regularly. Of course Michael also interviewed the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, because it was his job to balance his reports.  And ABC News paid him for those remarks, too.
The house in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised.
     Michael was very naive then, though smart and ambitious, and possessed of an amazingly mellifluous voice just made for announcing. In Atlanta, reporting the news, he began to question the core beliefs of the society in which he’d been raised. Eugene Patterson, editor at the Atlanta Constitution, who died last week, wrote stirring editorials on the subject. Michael read them, and was swayed. After the Birmingham church bombing, in 1963, Patterson wrote an editorial so powerful that Walter Cronkite invited him to read it on the national TV news.

     “Patterson and others like him were taking the lead in standing up to the extremists who endorsed violence to maintain segregation,” Michael remembers. “It made you start to think. How can we allow discrimination to go on? How can people kill children? This isn’t America. The scales began to fall from my eyes when I read Patterson. I watched King’s "I Have a Dream" speech live on television, and I thought how can we deny people their right to the American dream because of the color of their skin?  I decided it wasn’t right. I wouldn’t be that way.”
   Then came the ah-ha moment.
"....explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children." (from Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
     "One day on the radio in Atlanta I heard a black preacher describe prejudice as 'that blind vampire of the mind that sucks the red blood of healthy hopes.' Today, I can't recall that preacher's name. But his words stuck with me.  I thought: how can people who are just like me, wanting to get ahead in the world, be put down and disadvantaged all of their lives for something they cannot control, and are not responsible for — the color of their skin? The injustice of it was brought home to me by that preacher’s graphic words."

     Michael wasn’t a leader, and he didn’t aim to be a hero; he was a just a cub reporter, with a wife and two kids to support. But he knew where he stood.

On his many years of teaching Julian Bond, (shown here) recently had this to say about his students: "I hope they learned that the civil rights movement was a movement of ordinary people, many of them just like these young people who were sitting in my class."
    Michael was on the scene in 1964 when three black high school boys decided to force their way into the Pickrick Cafeteria in Atlanta. The Pickrick’s owner, Lester Maddox, adamantly refused to allow black people into his restaurant, in spite of the newly passed Civil Rights Act. The media had been alerted to the planned confrontation. A mob of angry segregationists had assembled. Michael approached the three young men and said to them “You need to think this through. You’re gonna get hurt. This isn’t the way to do this.” The students retreated. And on the front page of the Atlanta Times the next day, there was a photo of Michael, microphone in hand, speaking to the black students.  He wasn’t being a hero. He was being practical, he says today.

    “I knew those guys were gonna get hurt,” he says. "It was as simple as that.” Weeks later a better organized group of college students hired an attorney to challenge the illegal segregation of the Pickrick. And they won.  Rather than integrate, Maddox closed his restaurant. On the wave of that publicity, he was elected governor of Georgia.
 He didn't go to jail. He went to the Governor's mansion.
     On one occasion Michael interviewed Martin Luther King in person. King had piercing eyes, Michael remembers. King was very angry that he was being criticized for his opposition to the Vietnam War. Michael recalls King’s anguish, and also the absolute courage of his convictions.

      Recently I spoke with Reverend Robinson of the Big Coppitt Baptist Church. When the pastor mentioned Reverend King, I told him that my husband had interviewed the man in the '60s.
    “I bet that is a day he will never forget,” Reverend Robinson said.
    I told Michael at dinner that night.
    “He’s right,” Michael said. "Who could?"

      I love talking with Michael about those times. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a few months before I graduated from high school. By then Michael was out of the news business, and a student of history at Furman University. He was no longer naive. He knew how he felt and how he wanted to live.

     Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero in our home. Our son Miguel, who shares a birthday with King, has grown up knowing that. When Miguel was a little kid he and Michael sometimes talked about those days before the Civil Rights Act, when black people were not allowed in stores, restaurants, schools and churches. It was astonishing to Miguel, a kid born and raised in Key West, to know that his parents had lived in those times and witnessed that world.
The speech heard 'round the world:  I Have a Dream. Washington, D.C. 1963.  Fifty years ago!

    “You know,” Michael said, “someday Miguel will tell his children about a time when people were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. That they fought for the right to marry the person they love. And you know what? Miguel’s children will be astonished to hear that.”


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Coma, Part 3

Jennifer: A very fun girlfriend.
My dear friend Jennifer turns 44 years old this month. But I’m not sure this birthday truly counts. She hasn’t been fully engaged in the activities of living for some time now. Over two years ago Jennifer suffered an aneurism in her brain. She survived, but was in a coma for a long, long time. We who love Jennifer waited for days, weeks and months to know if she would come back to us. And nearly five months later, just around the time of her January birthday, she opened her eyes, eyes that had last viewed a warm September evening in Key West. She knew us. She came back to smile and wave and do something I call the Jenny Shrug. I know this because Jennifer and I have spent countless hours talking about our lives, the lives of our children, and the meaning of it all. I know the precise hue of resignation the Jenny Shrug implies. When she did it again after five months in a Sleeping Beauty-like coma, I cried with relief to see her personality unmistakably present.

     But Jennifer cannot walk, and she loved to walk. She cannot swim, and she loved to swim. She cannot cook and she loved to cook. She cannot talk and she loved to talk. She cannot write for hours each day in her tiny, precise print journaling the nuances of her days like a miner panning for nuggets of gold, hiding in plain sight. Jennifer cannot dress her beautiful sleek body or drive her children to school. She is hostage to bed and chair. And house. Outside of her house there are germs and cars and curious eyes to be protected from. In the lovely, light-filled house she shares with her husband Joe and her daughters Sophie and Tessa there is comfort and safety.  There is shelter, too, for their big dog, and their books and their piano, their computers, their hopes and dreams. There is a perfect garden, too, where Jennifer toiled happily and often, nurturing her plants just as she so carefully nurtured her family and her work.
Jennifer: A wonderful mother.
     The last thing I heard from Jennifer, before IT happened, was an email in which she asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her grad school application. I was in Nova Scotia when I read it. Two days later, Jennifer was in Miami, in a trauma center, far from her safe place, entranced in the most awful kind of way.

     How in the world does this happen? How does a beautiful and stately and thoughtful woman, indeed a fine specimen of our species, suffer such a thing as a brain bleed? How does God let this horror befall a good Catholic woman, so deeply devout, when an ambulance approaches she pulls off the road to say a prayer for the suffering?  We were told there had been a malformation in her brain, and that it had been there, stealthy, like a ticking time bomb for all those years of her life. This is fantastically rare. This makes no sense at all. The weight of it, if you think about it long enough, can suffocate you. The injustice of it can make you angry as hell, and vengeful. But upon whom do you wreak your revenge? Who is to blame?
Jen & Fam:  Trick-or-Treating with Stella, the Dog
     I remember a time when we were in a motel in Ft. Lauderdale where we’d gone to escape a hurricane bearing down on Key West. For Jennifer’s little girls it was an adventure. One morning, before the sun was up, I heard the girls stirring. Jennifer was asleep. Tessa gently shook her mother’s shoulders, and asked her to read to them. And so Jennifer read the book as the two little girls snuggled against her, one on each side. I remember thinking at the time how extrodinarily patient she was, how giving, how kind, to immediately respond to her babies. In the same situation, I know I would have said to my own little one: “I will read later. When I wake up. When I pee. When I am ready.”

A favorite picture: Tessa and Michael Keith
     When I was very ill Jennifer often took me to the hospital for my treatments. Afterwards, woozy with shock and pain, I would climb back into the car, and immediately begin to chat, as if I didn’t have cancer, as if my life was not upside down. I'd try to say something funny, to make Jennifer laugh. And she would say: “June, you don’t have to talk.”  I remember the time that finally sank in, the cool, clean feeling of deflating, of surrendering that heavy burden of responsibility for keeping the world on its axis. And soon, I understood that with Jennifer, it was OK to be quiet with my suffering. And in the quiet we shared, there was a wordless and loving peace. I healed.

     The shock of witnessing a loved one dealing with brain injury is in many ways worse than losing a loved one to death. Jennifer is here, but not fully here. She is here in spirit, in intellect, but locked in a strangely abeyant state, like a broken doll. That I cannot wake her from this half-sleep, that we can’t talk deeply the way we used to, makes me crazy with anger and grief. And fear. And guilt. I should be there by Jenny’s side more often, I think. I should learn to better endure my pain, as she has learned to endure hers.
Jennifer calls her daughters "The Bunnies."

     Lately, I’ve been trying hard to work through my anguish and my grief over what has happened to Jennifer. When I imagine how it is for her daughters, for her husband, for her parents – for all the people who so love Jennifer – I am breathless with the agony.  The other day I recalled that long ago time when I was sick and she was well. I remembered what she said: “You don’t have to say anything.” And now I get it. Sometimes there is nothing to say. Or do. But be here now. Not waiting, but knowing, that healing will come.