I had something I wanted to write on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and then on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I didn’t write it because I had a job I really had to get done. The job went off today, a really good, thought-provoking book about white privilege and how it skews just about every aspect of our lives, especially the justice system.
What I wanted to write about was how when Dr. King was killed, I barely knew who he was. Well, I knew who he was, but I had no clue about what he meant, and to whom, and why.
This was not because I was a little kid too young to know anything. I was two months shy of my 17th birthday, a junior in high school, a daily newspaper reader who knew a fair amount about U.S. politics and foreign affairs. My school gave students permission to leave early to attend a memorial service on Boston Common. I was amazed by the number of students who thronged the hallway getting ready to go. I thought most of them were just grabbing an excuse to cut class. If I’d been a little black kid in Alabama, I would have known better.
It was the first and (so far) last time in my life that I realized that the rest of the world knew something I didn’t. Something big. Something really big.
That summer, the summer of 1968, the church my family attended (I’d dropped out after I got confirmed in eighth grade — Christianity just didn’t take) offered a series of lecture-discussions called “Where Is Racism?” I went to all of them. As a result I started volunteering for METCO, a nonprofit endeavor that bused black city students to schools in white suburbs like the one I lived in.
METCO was based in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood that — if you lived in the white suburbs — was danger danger danger! the ghetto! the black ghetto! honkies keep out! My first day I drove there in my father’s VW Bug. With map on the passenger’s seat, I took Route 9 into Boston. I knew Route 9 like the back of my hand. My grandmother lived just off it in Brookline. One of my best friends lived off it; when I managed to borrow my dad’s car for the day, I’d pick her up and we’d head into school. I’d turn left past the lights, pass the famous hospitals, and turn in to the school parking lot.
Going to METCO, I turned right off Route 9 instead of left.
And found myself in a whole different world. This was Roxbury, the notorious Roxbury, where terrible things happened (according to the Boston papers)? So close to Route 9, and not all that far from my school?
It was several years before I heard the term “psychic map” for the first time, but when I did, this was what I thought of: Route 9 was on my psychic map, from Framingham all the way into Boston, but Roxbury, just off Route 9, was not. Roxbury was a terrifying place that I read about in the papers. It didn’t exist in my world. You couldn’t get there from here.
But you could. I’d done it. I did it quite a few times that summer. I magically passed from a street where all the people were white to one where all the people were black.
How did 1968 change my life? I can’t count the ways, because I have no idea how things would have evolved had Dr. King not been killed, and then Robert Kennedy; had Chicago not gone haywire during the Democratic Convention, had the USSR not invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, had Richard Nixon not been elected president. But the impact was profound, and lasting. Everything I know about Dr. King I learned after he died. It transformed my psychic map, and it changed my life.