Web Letters | The Nation

Déjà vu all over again

I am white. My friend Milton is black. The last time we saw each other was in 1968, when we were seniors at Germantown High School in Philadelphia. Much has changed since those tumultuous times. Both of us have been married, divorced, changed jobs, and moved, Milton to Alabama, and myself originally to the Washington and Virginia area and then back to the metro Philly area where I now live (in New Jersey). Since we last saw each other the world has seen fabulous new advances in technology, with compact discs and now mp3s, the Walkman, DVDs, the Internet, cellphones, computers, tablets, flat screen televisions, airbags in cars, mapping the human genome, and the Hubble Space telescope to view the universe. The first whirlpool bath, the Jacuzzi, was invented just as we were graduating high school. Post-it-notes, the first microprocessor, the first ink jet and laser printers, MRI’s, the first artificial heart, Dopler radar which we rely on to forecast and prepare for inclement weather, and of course Viagra, all came after we graduated high school.

In 1968 a first-class postage stamp was six cents and a gallon of gas was just forty. 1968 was a year that America seemed to be coming apart imploding from within. In one week we lost 543 soldiers in Vietnam with more than 2,500 wounded. Our college campuses were rife with student sit-ins, takeovers of the ROTC buildings, and our cities were in danger of what at times seemed like a civil war. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April of 1968, and Robert Kennedy was murdered that June. The Voting Rights Act had been passed three years earlier, but the tragic events of 1968 seemed to be drawing Americans farther and father apart. When Milton and I graduated from high school in 1968, the words “hope” and “change” were on everyone’s mind. We all had hopes for a better tomorrow. We felt that things could not get much worse.

Through the miracle of Facebook, after losing touch for forty-five years we found each other again. Milton drove up from Alabama with his lovely lady, Rachelle, to meet old friends in Philly, and it was a joyous time getting together. However, with all the joy I felt inside about seeing my old friend, I became very sad. The great divide between white and black America that we all hoped in 1968 would be healed seems just as bad as it ever was. Yes, there are thousands more black elected officials in our cities and states, and yes, we have our first black president, something no one, black or white would have thought possible back in 1968. Unfortunately, the poison of racism has not been eradicated in our country. In 1988 the Bush campaign ran its famous Willie Horton ad, which was designed to frighten white voters who might vote for Democrats. The O.J. Simpson trial’s verdict in 1995 showed how divided white and black America still were.

While getting ready for my meeting with Milton I was watching the news reports about the the Trayvon Martin trial. The Internet has been filled with hundreds of thousands of posts on media websites as well as hundreds of thousands of tweets about the trial. Four white journalists began speaking about how shocked they were at the thousands upon thousands of vile, racist tweets they read about Rachel Jeantel, the friend of Trayvon Martin who testified last week. I sat there watching in sadness, remembering how much all of us who believe that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper had hopes for a better America. I remembered sitting in the living room in 1963 with my parents watching Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Almost a half-century has gone by since I last saw my friend Milton. What has changed between blacks and whites in America? The Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court last week, and when you read the thousands of comments posted on media sites, it seems as though too many white Americans believe that black Americans want some special entitlement, when all they were asking for is what every white American has had since the day they were born… their civil rights respected, equality in the workplace, and justice and fairness in our courts. The chasm between blacks who are concerned about their right to vote being suppressed and subverted and whites who have no understanding about what it is like to suffer discrimination is as deep and as wide as it ever was.

Milton and I are both 63 now and not the 18-year-olds who were beginning to embark on our lives’ journeys back in 1968. Although of different “races,” we both had hopes for a better, fairer, more just America where Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream would become a reality. Racism is alive and well in America, and the great divide between whites and blacks is still there. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I weep for my friend. I weep for my country.

Mark Jeffery Koch

Cherry Hill, NJ

Aug 21 2013 - 10:44am

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