Robert F. Kennedy turned 38 years old two days before his older brother was killed on November 22, 1963 in Dallas Texas. Almost five years later, on the night of June 6, 1968, the then presidential candidate himself was killed in Los Angeles, California. Today, November 20, 2013, would have been Bobby's 88th birthday.
On June 7, 1968, the morning after Bobby was killed, my morning began in the outdoor assembly lines at the end of a several-day Magnolia Boys State in-residence civic training exercise on a junior college campus in Jackson, Mississippi. We participants had not yet learned of the news of the night before. We knew only that breakfast awaited after the staff were through with the morning announcements.
Jackson was a city that had only five years earlier in June suffered its own political assassination, that of Medgar Evers, in his driveway by a Mississippi white supremacist, and it had two years later in May 1970 seen two students at Jackson State College, a black school and now University, fatally gunned down and 12 others wounded, when they were attacked by Jackson's white supremacist police force, an official arm of apartheid at the time. This military-type assault served as a severe corollary to Evers' earlier murder, which was committed by a vigilante terrorist encouraged by official state oppression and its attendant culture of hate. Jim Crow takes this two-fisted approach everywhere it's allowed to thrive.
Back in June 1968 meanwhile, Jackson was still sloughing along as predominantly an apartheid city of modest size and of justifiable low stature nationally because of its racist intransigence, as hundreds of the state's hand-chosen potential future civic leaders gathered for the annual American Legion-sponsored Boys State on one campus and the comparable Girls State gathering at a separate Jackson campus. We were a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds picked locally from the towns and hamlets across the state. Some of us excelled in academics or sport, others were in prominent families, and some were a mixture of all three. We were there for a reason, to help provide for the future stability of the realm, to hold the future as it had always been held in the past, though I'm sure many of us were there for the trip and the stay away from home.
For purposes of the civic training, the entire group of Boys State had been arbitrarily divided officially into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, a decent approximation of the two major ideological divisions in the country, which were an extension as well of the Civil War dividing lines. These two groups were teaching vehicles used to help foster understanding of how political and legislative functions operated. A more realistic approximation of how things worked in Mississippi would have been to appoint a king and close aides and tell everyone else to do exactly as they were told. Good government was simple in this former and in many ways continued Confederate state, where by far the greatest concentration of slaves had toiled away their lives under the whip and chain, and whose descendants still filled out the ranks of the state's dispossessed and ignored at best.
We who were the Magnolia State's raw leadership material that summer morning of June 7, 1968 suffered through the announcements and the organized back-and-forth bantering cheers. Ridiculous rhymes had been learned for the occasion, and we had to chant them before allowed to have breakfast, a mild though embarrassing coercion. A Nationalist cheer went as follows: Potatoes, tomatoes, green pea soup, Nationalists, Nationalists, oop oop ee doop. You can clearly see the thoughtful and meaningful process underway which the American Legion had deemed important to the future of the great and greatly misunderstood State of Mississippi. If anything, the rest of the nation's low opinion of Mississippi was an overestimation. That became especially clear upon what happened next.
First, an adult leader of Boys State got everybody's attention. Then he announced that the night before, Bobby Kennedy had been killed. After a stunned pause of only a second or two, totally without coordination and without inhibition, Mississippi's carefully chosen future governors, legislators, mayors, councilman, and confederated army of separate-but-equal-forever businessmen let rip a spontaneous sustained roar of ecstatic delirium and wild abandon, punctuated by shrill rebel yells, that still reverberates today in my mind. Once the acclaim died down, which took a while, we were led to the cafeteria for breakfast as if nothing sad and horrible had just happened. I'm sure I wasn't completely alone in my shock and utter dismay to be among these amoral jackasses, raised to be exactly what they had become, but it felt like it. Contrary opinion was not encouraged in polite Mississippi society.
For the rest of that day, I felt more angry, outraged, and awakened than I'd ever remembered feeling. I just couldn't do nothing. There must be something. That night would be the farewell assembly in an auditorium. I sought out a Boys State counselor. I'd need help with an ad hoc plan. I had to get in front of the assembly and do something, even if it was just symbolic. I felt intimidated to say anything directly, like share my thoughts on what had happened that morning, but I knew that no one else was going to do anything at all in response to the moral atrocity that had occurred that morning before breakfast. I couldn't let that happen. It had to be today.
I told the counselor what I wanted to do. I'm not sure if I told him why. I might have though. It probably rolled off my tongue from the roiled emotion. I don't know why it felt okay to approach this particular person, but he obliged, for which I was and still am very grateful. He managed to obtain the sheet music I'd requested, which seemed a bit miraculous. He arranged permission for me to sing that night and to have a piano brought to the stage and found someone who could play it. Amazingly, things were on track. Though it was a more frightening prospect than I'd ever remembered facing, I was comforted by the strength of the unexpected conviction that something needed to be done, but I also realized that many if not most of the teen cohort wouldn't necessarily grasp the symbolism. Even with this limitation of impact, this gesture of respect would have to be enough.
The moment came, the auditorium was darkened save for sconces and footlights, the piano began its intro, and at the very back of the auditorium, to my surprise and at that very second, a good friend from my high school appeared. Talk about your angels. She'd been across town at Girls State. She'd somehow found out what I was doing. As she stood back there, her presence filled me with confidence. I felt supported. I was not alone. She was someone well-known for a genial integrity and intelligence and who'd always been kind to me. She'd also been my piano accompanist on solos back at hometown Biloxi High. With her there, I was able to relax and perform with emotion my very modest possible dream of trying to make even a small difference in this place so lost in the misplaced grievances of time and warped by its selective privilege of hate, all of it previously hidden in the fog generated by a crass rationalization of the theft of an entire people's rightful entitlement.
Which dies harder, hate or hope? Which should spring eternal?
This is the song, though obviously not my version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsNJtTKdUec [there could be a commerical].