I have often heard Marshall speak of the race riot that engulfed Detroit when he moved their as a child in 1943. In an interview with Terry McKnally on KPFK radio, Marshall says, "I was living in Detroit at the time. My family had just moved there—just in time for the race riots of 1943, and we were locked in the house for four days while the riots went on, and there were about 32 people killed in our neighborhood, and that was a very powerful learning experience for me as a young boy. It taught me that this is a world where things like your skin color or your name could be a stimulus for violence. And that put in my head a question that's been there ever since; which is: What happens to people that they enjoy other people's suffering? That they want to hurt people?"
I remember similar thoughts responding to the race riots of 1965 in the Watts neighborhood of LA. I was 9 years old, safely nestled in my parents' home on the "white side" of the railroad tracks that ran down the middle of Smyrna, GA. I watched in horror and fear as the tv images showed people being beaten and killed. I felt confused, disgusted, and deeply saddened, telling myself that there had to be a better way to work out differences than killing each other because of the color of skin. I also remember anger and fear arising when I heard people like Lester Maddox, George Wallace, and J. B. Stoner espouse their hatred in newspapers and television stories.
I am grateful that, although I grew up in that protected suburb of Atlanta in the heart of the Deep South, my parents raised me to respect people without regard for race. Although there is no doubt that my mind and heart were affected by the institutionalized racism of Georgia in the 50's and 60's, my mother especially encouraged me to see that we were all human, brothers and sisters in the human family.
I gained an even deeper understanding of racism when my mother encouraged me to read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Griffin, a white man, underwent a procedure to darken his skin to go "undercover" and report back to the world what it was like to be African-American during the late 50's when the US was a deeply segregated society. I remember feeling stunned at the wide range of hatred endured by Griffin as he attempted to survive in America in a time before the Civil Rights movment emerged. It made a deep impression on my young mind.
I feel curious now, having read all this, what feelings and needs are you in touch with? I'd enjoy reading your comments!
For more information on the 1943 Detroit riot, read this/
For more information on the Watts riot of 1965, read this/
For more information on Black Like Me, read this/.
For Marshall's complete interview with Terry McKnally, click this/