As a boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my skin was as white as the fog that shrouded my hometown hills. And the fog of my southern roots shrouded my awareness of other races and cultures.
Nevertheless, from the distant listening post of my 1967 middle-class home, the cries of social change seemed muffled and off key. Life was a normal summer filled with swimming lessons, summer school, roller-skating and Vacation Bible School. It was the year that California’s Governor Reagan was considering holding school on Saturdays and my classmates and I were asking our parents to elect someone called Nixon so that they’d not need to send another son to someplace called Viet Nam.
By the time school started in the fall, our fifth grade teacher was ready with an announcement – our school was about to get our first black students. No, this wasn’t Louisiana. This was Balboa Elementary School in Richmond, California. We answered our teacher’s announcement with a conspiracy. Our conspiracy, of course, had a leader – Keith.
He persuaded us that we shouldn’t fear these children – as long as “us white kids stuck together.” “Don’t anyone talk to them,” we agreed.
” If they cause any trouble,” he cautioned, “we’ll show them who really runs this schoolyard.”
You couldn’t really blame Keith. He was always expecting a fight because he got so many at home. And between his suspensions from school, he was usually picking fights there too. It was even rumored that he was once suspended for hitting a teacher. So, Keith was our leader and we’d stick together.
We weren’t just counting on Keith, however. We were counting a bit on our geography. For you see, while many southern states were full of towns segregated by railroad tracks, Richmond seemed segregated by a freeway. And with the district out of money for bussing, we thought our school would be safe from integration. And it would have been – except for “the tunnel.”
” The tunnel,” as the kids all called it, was a darkened pedestrian walkway under the freeway that reeked of urine and seemed paved with broken light bulbs and Coke bottles. Yet this tunnel linked two communities like a modern eco-tunnel built for wildlife to cross under freeways, and it became the thing that launched us out of our segregated past to our colorful futures.
So one foggy September morning in 1967, as troop strength in Viet Nam approached 500,000, a small group of 10-year-old soldiers in the war on prejudice walked out of a tunnel looking more like a scraggly group of Pop Warner football players returning to a halftime deficit – overwhelmed both by the size of the field and the stake of the game.
Among those soldiers were some names I still remember: Deborah, Agnes, Jeffrey and Gregory. Now, usually my stories have some sort of dramatic climax, but the most dramatic thing that happened here was that there was never any drama. Nothing really happened. Keith didn’t beat anyone up. Nobody rioted or protested. We just had life happen right amongst us. Agnes stole my pencils, but Deborah stole my heart. Gregory beat me out on both the history quizzes and the 50-yard dash – of course, so did Agnes.
That is until that first Thursday in April 1968. Sometime after the evening fog began its return to the Bay Area hills, a friend came over to tell me he’d just heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis.
Now, years almost forty years after the fog of the ’60s has lifted, it seems to me that in the end, our little school became part of King’s dream as it was “…transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” *
* Martin Luther King, I Have A Dream Speech