Skip to main content
Essay

What I learned on Spring Break, 1968

By April 6, 2018 11 Comments
Listen To Article

The night Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, four of us—small-town, small-college, white boys—were following the Gulf’s eastern shore on an all-night trek from south Florida to New Orleans. It was spring break, 1968, only a few months from the summer that seemed to change all of our lives.

We heard about Dr. King’s death over the AM band on the radio in that ’62 Chevy with the Iowa plates. We were on our way to New Orleans’ French Quarter, sin city, four lusty guys, tired and sun-burned, traveling along some several hundred comfortable miles south of our own birthright Christianity.

From the time we’d scarfed down cheap burgers for late supper, through the next morning’s first whispered glow, that radio kept spilling news about King’s death — news stories interrupting music, statements being read by just about anybody important enough to merit air time, memorials and obituaries. James Earl Ray had killed Martin Luther King outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

The sun wore a heavy mask of gulf fog that morning when light opened our eyes to the coast. I don’t remember where we were, but the chore of keeping ourselves awake made us pull over at the nearest dive, however seedy. It was still before six. Two guys kept right on sleeping in the back seat, but two of us walked up to the door of a greasy spoon and found it very much awake.

What we saw inside remains the most vivid picture I took during the 1968 spring break. The place was full of rednecks, open bottles standing on the tables, even though it was a cafe and not a bar. A sign up near the cash register claimed proceeds that day would go to the Klan. The jukebox wailed out music I’d never heard before, half rock ‘n’ roll, half-country, all thick with racist spit. I remember wanting to write down the lyrics as we sat there and waited for hotcakes, but I was bloody scared. These guys were men other men know as dangerous, just by sight. We had walked right into an all-night party–all-male, all-white, and all hate, in celebration of a dead man sprawled in a mass of blood on a motel balcony.

We sat quietly and ate a breakfast served up, ironically, by a cook whose black face appeared then disappeared above the window shelf where plates full of breakfast came up miraculously from the back.

The partiers, mostly drunk, were oblivious to us. As I remember it now, years later, we ate hotcakes in fear and shock, as if some omniscient theater director had staged this moment for us, something we’d never seen before and would never see again.

That’s what I remember best about the night Dr. King was murdered. That’s what I know of unalloyed racist hate.

But Martin Luther King had come into my life several years earlier, when my friend’s father, a good man, asked me to go along to a meeting that had been spread around in whispers and fleeting glances, a get-together of like minds in a huge mansion, on the bluffs above Lake Michigan in a small Wisconsin city near the town where I grew up. Mid-sixties, middle of the Cold War, and I was barely 16, an evangelical Christian, a sworn enemy of atheistic communism, a patriotic American kid who that very fall wrote a civics essay about American responsibility in Southeast Asia in the face of the global communist menace. I still have that essay, written in a fine cursive hand.

We sat on folding chairs in an upstairs room in that mansion — not just steel folding chairs, but padded folded chairs — in straight rows, facing a screen. The meeting was opened in fervent prayer. I remember feeling excited about being in that place, as if we were banded together like the disciples, doing upper-room plotting to determine what measure of righteousness America needed. Invitation to the mansion had come only by word of mouth, and, even thought I was just a kid, I felt privileged to be there, a meeting, I later discovered, of the Sheboygan chapter of the John Birch Society.

The feature of that evening’s meeting was a slide/tape presentation featuring Martin Luther King caught in candid shots talking to people who the taped voice insisted were communists. This was Wisconsin, after all, home to Senator McCarthy. The clearly stated message of the presentation I understood because I knew my own father somehow believed it: that behind the movement for civil rights in America, the Russian bear–atheist communism–sat back calmly and waited, like some forest cousin, to devour the honey sweetness of American liberty.

I respected my father, as I did my friend’s-father, the man who’d asked me to come along. Maybe that’s why my memories of that furtive mansion meeting is complicated by my own respect for those men and their devotion, their love of country, of culture, of home.

Those two moments in my life — an all-night bayou drunken bash and an evening’s anti-communist meeting, shrouded in secrecy and glutted with conspiracy theory, both virulently racist — clash in tone and spirit, but the line that separates them is thread-thin.

Most of us do not find hate particularly attractive. Love redeems us, cleanses us, after all. I’ve never felt any affinity with the men in the all-night diner, but I still admire the man who brought me along to the mansion, even though that night and forever since I’ve not shared his politics.

In those moments when I feel latent racism running in me—as I do—I know that its source is often least recognizable and most unmanageable when it emerges from love. Hate is not one of the seven deadlies, oddly enough, although it has a kissing cousin in Wrath.

The king of the deadlies, to the world of medieval theologians and the world we know today, is pride, pride in self first of all, but also pride in culture, in country, in race—pride that sometimes shows itself as love, a clever disguise for its opposite.

That much I learned one dark early morning on Spring Break, 1968.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

11 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “The king of the deadlies, to the world of medieval theologians and the world we know today, is pride … ”

    Living in the Carolinas now, episodes (like these you relate) are the daily “other,” – not just two evening encounters from years ago. I guess sociologists use the the term “positive distinctiveness” to i.d. the drive that precipitates these “meetings.” The problem is that one way this is lived-out is by looking down on members of other groups. So if someone is noticeably different in some way, people sometimes hold negative attitudes about that individual because they belong to a different group. In this decade of century 21, liberals (leaning towards letting immigrants of color in) have now become the un-Godly “them.”

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Jim, this piece is so powerful for me. It is vibrating in tune with feelings and memories I almost never try to express. And that I try almost never to express… the two pictures you paint speak eloquently. And painfully. I think you illuminate the national scene… and maybe the church scene too.
    Thanks.

  • Jim says:

    Your posts are always fine, James, but this one is really exceptional. Deep delving and transcendent at once. Plus the story of my formation as well.

  • Henk says:

    As always, from your pen, well written. Incisive yet gentle, bold yet sensitive.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, James, for the recounting of your 1968 experiences of racism. It was a difficult era. My experience was entirely different. I was in Vietnam, not by choice, but because I was drafted. I remember so vividly being put on guard duty at the extremity of our post with a fellow soldier, a black man. We had the whole night, from nine at night till seven in the morning to keep watch over the area of our base perimeter. The guy I sat or stood with all night was great. We had some great conversations and bonded over a period of time. But he told me plain and simple, don’t expect such friendliness from him back on base, and please do not try talking to him or befriend him when he was with his black friends. I remember the hurt I felt when he and his black friends, on base, cut in the front of the chow line daring the white boys behind them to stop them. I’m glad for the many friends I have today, both black and white. Things are changing slowly. But what you and I remember, James, of the late 60’s and early 70’s was a transforming period of recent history. Thanks for your article.

  • Janice Heerspink says:

    Those were powerful, amazing days and years! I woke up to racism the night MLK was assassinated, and I have tried to stay aware and active. I know that I have white privilege, and I know that I don’t always do my best to respond. But I try.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Pride in culture is a tricky thing. You can’t celebrate diversity without it, and yet there is a sense that I’m supposed to be (mostly) embarrassed by mine.

    Sloth is another deadly sin, which in this context is the unwillingness to defend that which is good. My kids are learning about this now, in reaction to a generation of blind guides unable to recognize/acknowledge that the world has never had it so good.

  • J Zuidema says:

    Such powerful words. I’m not sure which story is more scary – that of the drunk hatred or that of the ‘underground’ hatred. Both wreck havoc in the lives of the hater and the hated. And you are so right; what is sold as pride in country and self is actually hatred of the other, who might somehow change us or what we hold dear. Thank you for illuminating a past we continue to repeat.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Since we’re learning about the risks of pride (hatred?), what do you call it when you’re so confidant in you’re opinion that you openly encourage the violation of agreements made with your partners (fellow citizens) in the name of charity – the special kind where others pay the price?

    • James Schaap says:

      Sorry, I don’t think I know. You’re fishing for something, but I’m not catching on.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Your countrymen are your partners – with whom you’ve made agreements (laws). The open borders crowd isn’t interested in renegotiating these agreements, they are actively subverting them to the detriment of their partners – in the form of vote dilution/fraud, lower wages, crime, overwhelmed schools, higher taxes, etc. It’s one thing to disagree (or be disappointed) with your partners, another to resist them (with the realization that you may be required to pay a price), but it’s quite a thing to openly steal from them AND accuse them of being racists.

Leave a Reply