In 1967, I was 2 years old.
My parents lived in Verona, New Jersey – just a couple of miles away from Montclair, where we moved a bit later, and where my youngest daughter spends most of her week at her dad’s house. (Oh, irony. Less than a mile from the house where I spent formative years.)
My father was a Presbyterian minister at Central Presbyterian in Montclair. In 1967, the riots in Newark were going on.
My dad was (and my sister and brother and I are) part Seminole and Blackfoot. His dad and mom grew up passing for pure white. (But also with a weird pride when it became fashionable again.) And Dad’s gut was yanked into the instability in Newark. He wanted to help. Knowing my dad, it wouldn’t surprise me if he felt he had no choice. A hardscrabble, mixed-race kid from Oklahoma City who made it to Harvard Divinity School (where he met my mom), the situation must have been howling at him.
So he went to the traditionally black churches in Newark. And one night he was jacked up against the wall and threatened. Basically, “white people are the problem, why are you here” sort of thing.
Somehow he talked everyone down. Most likely by relating to them – “I grew up hard – my grandmother’s family hated my dad because he was Indian and born in a sod house and of uncertain parentage”. He got out of the church intact. And he blamed no one for the rage. He understood it.
And he kept working. We moved to Southern Delaware, which in the 1970s was plenty racist, I can assure you. I was taught Civil War history by a Byrd from Virginia who insisted on the “states’ rights” line of thinking among a bunch of 10-year-olds – and that was the only Civil War history we received. Everything else I’ve had to learn on my own. But the fact that he dealt corporal punishment exclusively to African American kids was not lost on me.
Dad had plenty to do there. And he did. He counseled other ministers who had crosses burning on their lawns (oh yes, the Klan was alive and well then). He embraced gay rights long before anyone else ever did – counseling families who were breaking up because the father couldn’t live the lie anymore; counseling women who were lonely because they could not confess their relationships or even desires. He was incensed at prejudice, at bigotry, whenever it reared up.
I miss him a lot, because there’s so much to talk about now.