Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Voting Day

Today is an historic day. A black man and a woman are on the ballot for in the largest primary in the history of presidential primaries.

I worked for this day as far back as a kid and yet I can not vote.

"You have 30 seconds to make this deal or you will do 8 years in prison". Those words give me nightmares at times. "What about ....?" "Forget about it. "Can not do that". What about.......?" "Can't do that". She was like a broken record, more concerned about having lunch on pleasant terms with the procsecutor than hearing anything I had to say.

"CAN I VOTE?" was my next question. "Forget about all of that." She walked away from me as if she had clinched a big deal.

When I was a kid, my parents were campaign workers of every campaign. I was passing out leaflets as young as 6 years old. I never missed an election after that. Not until I was 14.

I knew how to package all of the materials together and count out the appropriate number for each block in the neighborhood. My father would have my friends and me go house to house and pass out the literature.

By 1968, while I was an 8th grader at Harvard School, I had graduated to making calls for my mother and basically quantifying who in our precinct was going to vote and who was going to vote for Robert Kennedy. I had my Kennedy hat. I wore it during my calls.

The computer has come a long way. In 1968 my mother had to fill out a data card each time a phone call was made and submit those to be input into a data processing computer.

At that time there was an alumnus from my school who had been very nice to me who had a lot riding on the election. His son was in the class above me. That man was H.R. Haldeman. I did not know it at the time but he was a big Nixon man. He became his chief of staff.

In the spring of 1968, the first man to fall was Martin Luther King. We were coming home from school when we found out. We had on our military uniforms at the time. My father was silent. Very silent. We all were. It was a hell of a day.
At school, there were people who were very offended at the death of Martin King. Some were not. Some people had been misled into believing that Martin's fight for equal rights was a battle to overthrow the government. Martin also was against Vietnam.

We soldiered on. In May, we stepped up our campaign energy. Phone calls were made every night. My mother would let me call and remind people to vote when she had to go to the Kennedy campaign headquarters. After each call I would fill out the computer card and sort out campaign materials. Materials were only suppose to go to the people who said they were going to vote.

At school, people debated every day. They had their views. I had mine. Some of us had the same views. Some of us did not. However our debates were heated and filled with facts and figures. I had mine. Those with the opposing views had theirs.

I was the voice of the Democratic side. I had a lot invested in the Democratic dreams. My first heart ache and lesson on the realities of life came when Medgar Evers and James Meredith were killed. I met Evers son years later and we became casual acquaintances. I had also met and became friends with Rosa Parks niece. We did background work together in tv and films.

We were at a military school at a very emotional time for the country. It was a time like never before. Emotions ran high. Youth were against adults. Brothers were against brothers.

It was a time that was incredible. It was incredible for me as well because I was in a school that was in the center of alot of power. Haldeman eventually went to the White House with Nixon.

Derek Bok, a Harvard School alumnus , was the president of Harvard University and Daniel Ellsberg was at the Pentagon. Daniel Ellsberg's son, Robert, was in the class behind me.

Finally, Ronald Reagan was the governor of California and eventually his son was at our school as well. I had a ring side seat on world affairs. Harvard School for Boys was the backdrop of the powerful. They were on campus all of the times to see their sons.

Civil rights was a big issue. and so was Vietnam. I was the only student that I was aware of that had a relative in Vietnam. My uncle, he lived with me like a brother was there and I watched the news everyday to see if I could see him. I studied hard my eigth grade year. I had to do something to keep my mind off of my uncle. I type every homework assignment. I shined my shoes and brass buckle and ornaments two or three times a day. I was an AAU swimmer and I started playing tennis.

In my spare time I tutored an older student who was from Japan to speak english. His name was Honda, the son of the man who founded the motorcycle and car company that bears the same name. The son of the vice president of South Korea was there as well. There was alot going on at that little school of 400 boys. I was learning things and seeing things that no one will see again.

In May of 1968, Robert Kennedy wrote a letter to my mother. It was postmarked 5 days before he was killed. I found that letter before all of this happened. I was in shock when I found it.

I tried to frame it but......

Robert Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador. My mother was there that night. She came home with tears in her eyes. My family loved the Kennedy's. Still do.

I was not prepared to ambushed with grief for the second time within a few months. When Martin was killed, it was difficult because some people would yell to me that they were glad he was killed. I did not engage those students. I walked away. I would spend hours on the backboard hitting the tennis ball. Hours. I had to learn how to play. "Niggers can't play tennis".

one student said to me after Martin was killed. It was in response to a question that someone asked me in the locker room one day.

"Melton, why are blacks so go in football, baseball and basketball but not tennis and swimming?" It was sincere question and one of my responsibilities was to answer questions like that. He waited for my response. I could see in his eyes that he was scared he offended me.

"I am one of the best swimmers in this school, right?" I asked.

"Yes you are, "he said to me.

"Why do you think that is?

"I do not know."

"It is because I had the chance to be exposed to the sport. "

"Are not all blacks exposed to swim pools"?

"No." Do not confuse the few blacks that you see at this school with being the norm of the black community. We are a very small microcosm." Yes, I used that word. My father introduced me to that word when explaining the same things to me as a young boy.

"If blacks are given the chance, they would do well, at least as well as anyone else if they pursued it."

I beat the kid three months later that said blacks could not play tennis. He was the best in my class. He quit playing tennis after I beat him. I never stopped after that day.

When Robert Kennedy was shot. It was hard for me. It was the first time I had to understand grieving for someone and, at the same time, be happy that a father of one of my class mates was having success and would be in the white house as a result of Robert Kennedy's death.

I learned as a little boy that everyone was equal. I had to learn how to understand that I could not pick my friends by their political views. I had to separate the man from his politics.

It was easy because Mr. Haldeman had been very nice to me when I was at a school festival the May before I was to enroll that following Septemberl. He was joking with people outside of the Library of the school. A band comprised of school mates were playing "Light my Fire" and I was standing, leaning against a pole. Mr Haldeman was joking with people who knew him. They were neighbors and also former classmates. Mr Haleman's son was a seventh grader and following his footsteps. He was proud as any father would be. His son, Hank, was a very popular student. Everyone liked him.
Mr. Haldeman thought I was not having fun and he walked up to me and asked me if everything was ok and that if there was anything he could do. He was thrilled that I was going to attend his school in the upcoming fall semester.

Mr Haldeman taught me a lesson that I never forgot. Everyone talks about not judging people by their color. Sadly enough alot of people judge people by their political affiliation and friendships are determined by the same.

I learned from Mr. Haldeman that I had to look at a man beyond his politics. Mr. Haldeman had a view of the world that was shaped by how he grew up: social pressures of his ilk, the accept norms of thinking and behavior. He knew what he was taught. He was a product of his parents generation and what they taught their kids.

I found out at Harvard School that, though many parents had their point of view, they knew that many times, their point of view kept them handcuffed and in a sort of prison. They did not impose their beliefs on their kids. They knew they could not change themselves, at times, but they did not want their children to be handicapped or infected with a view of the world that they felt kept them from being free in many ways. I thought they were couragous.

It taught me how to look deeper than what people thought and more at what shaped their thoughts. It was like a math problem. Was it important to guess and get the answer right or learn the formula and review the thinking process.

After Kennedy was shot, I did not campaign again. It hurt too much. I was glad that my friends father, and alumnus of the school was in the White House but I was grieving for Robert Kennedy as well as Martin King.

When I started training for the triathlon, I sat in the spa facing the Kennedy Athletic Center. I told you how many times I thought about history and tradition.
I thought of the sacrifice that many men and women gave for freedom in wars. I thought about the sacrifice that men and women gave to fight for civil rights. I thought of the deaths of Martin King, Robert Kennedy, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, the children in the church and many others. I thought of my grandparents and the commitment they had for my education. I thought of my parents and the many hours they spent on the phones campaigning and passing out leaflets.

It all worked to fuel my fight to end substance abuse. It worked. I realized it was rediculous. I swore I would change. I did.

I even started to consider campaigning again and continue the Melton family tradition of commitment to supporting political candidates. All of that has been postponed but those goals are not cancelled or altered. Just postponed.

Yes this is black history month and the accomlishments and sacrifices of black men and women as well as others have contributed to this day where we have a black male and a white female running for President. It is historic. It is a statement of how far we have come. It is proof of how important the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was for the spirit and health of our nation. The effects of that decision are just now beginning to reveal themselves.

It is a proud day for America. and yes. I found out from an attorney that I could vote and I rushed over to the voting booth in Skid Row.

By the way, Skid Row was very sober and clean today. It was a sobering experience to witness the sense of purpose that was in the air and the silent consensus that this was a sacred day. I am sure drug sales were down.

I was surprised that many people voted. Very surprised at the turnout on Skid Row.
It goes to show you that these people care. They want to be a part of the American system. They realize that sacrifices are made. They had a voice today. They exercised a privilege and felt strength. Lets help that their strength grows.

Lets pray that the strength of America continues to grow so that we can have more days like this one.

good night America, I love you.

1 comment:

dgarzila said...
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