Saturday, March 29, 2008

Looking Back and Looking Forward

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in the City of Chicago. In elementary school our history teacher told us that none of us could ever become President of the United States because all of us were either Catholics or Jews. "Only White Protestants can become President," she said.

I don't know if any of us were particularly disappointed by not being able to become President, but we were all pretty curious about what was a Protestant? Most had never met one. That's how segregated and divided America was at the time -- not just racially but also in terms of religion and ethnic background. Everyone lived cloistered in their "own" neighborhood, on their "own" block, and in their "own" familiar mindset.

Later, at the dawn of the 60's, when I was 21 years old something was happening that was about to change everything. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for President of the United States. We knew that if a Catholic could become President -- well, anything might be possible. He was elected and I went on from the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago's West Side to do graduate studies at Columbia University in New York.

My field was American government and politics. My special research interest was race and poverty in large cities. My first publication (with two colleagues) was about a public referendum in New York City that attempted to create a civilian review board for cases of alleged police brutality (largely against blacks). My first teaching position was at Oberlin College in Ohio where I became active in the civil rights movement. Then I advanced to the mega campus of the University of Illinois where I conducted research about grassroots citizen participation in the anti-poverty programs of the City of Chicago.

On the campus the Vietnam War was taking over as the number one political priority. It was a cauldron of seething and roiling resentments combined with the biggest and most promising possibilities that anyone had ever imagined. WE were the revolution. Then came 1968 -- the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and of Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy in June and, in August, the Democratic Nominating Convention brought violence to the streets of Chicago. I had had enough!

Many of us began the process of walking away from America, mostly in our minds but also on the ground. "America was and is and will always be America," we thought, "it's time to try something else." No one could have imagined that someday it might all lead from Chicago to something like this...

1 comment:

Linda said...

Thank you for keeping me on your mailing list, in spite of my woeful track record of (not) replying! I have enjoyed your posts and your beautiful photos. You do have a "magic eye." There must be a Brazilian saying for that. I had not seen the video from the Bronx school, but of course I loved it. I will be sending it on to several friends tonight. We are fervent Obama supporters, and our emotions have gone up and down with his fortunes. Although I absolutely feel he must win, it is still clear that at the very least he has changed the benchmark for politics in many ways.