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A Change Is Gonna Come

By TOM MEREDITH | Feb 18, 2019

Being a child of the ’60s does not mean being part of a drug culture to me, or anti-government, or taking part in antiwar demonstrations, though those ideas and activities were certainly prominent. I have always felt proud to be part of the generation that saw great change in racial equality take place in our country. Some of those changes involved violence, which frightened me at the time and still do.

We are not perfect yet, but when you think of the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws, we have clearly come a long way during my lifetime.

As I get older I find different snippets of conversations and experiences float to the surface of my consciousness with a clearer meaning. I was always proud of the time three neighborhood men came to our door demanding my parents sign a petition to prevent black citizens from voting. My parents refused, the men got belligerent (there was alcohol involved), and my parents slammed and locked the door. Despite my fear they would break the door down, the men disappeared. I remember my mother saying you’d have to be drunk to try to take a petition like that around; it’s unconstitutional. I didn’t understand unconstitutional but didn’t ask.

I was used to seeing black sports stars and entertainers on TV, and some black workers in our development. We called them Negros, never the other N word, although some of my parents’ friends used it freely. I never sensed a hateful emotion behind it when they did. Mainly, they did not bother to give black citizens any emotion whatsoever. My grandmother explained to me that n****r was a word describing someone who is miserly with money and goods, but people had changed it to have a bad meaning and it was not a good word. I am condensing here because miserly created a whole other conversation for me to wonder about.

Netflix has a great documentary on one of my favorite artists, Sam Cooke. I make no claim to be any more knowledgeable about music and musicians beyond what I enjoy. I enjoy the history and backstory, but I am not formally educated in music history. Sam Cooke’s music always seemed to catch my ear, his voice so easy to listen to, his lyrics so clear. I knew of the mystery revolving around his death in 1964, and that seemed to add to his mystique. I was unaware of his contributions in the movement for equality.

Sam was connected with and supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also spent time with Malcolm X and cut a record with Cassius Clay just before he became Muhammad Ali. As his entertainment career began soaring, he made many friends in the higher levels of white society and business and had entry into American living rooms on a regular basis. Record companies pressured him to keep his politics out of his music, but when on tour he refused to play in segregated venues, which brought pressure from his fans on business owners.

Sam Cooke was a soft-spoken man, not afraid to join Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and others in speaking out about equal treatment for black citizens. He may not have been as loud as Ali, or as contentious as Malcolm X, but he followed Dr. King’s example to speak and act with dignity and resolve.

It strikes me the manner in which the abovementioned men and so many others helped elicit change, each in their own small way, at great risk, without acts of violence, and stayed the course until equality showed its face. When compared with how people today are trying to create change, I see some strong inconsistencies worth pondering.

Today the people are politicians looking for change for unclear motives. They are demanding changes in society rather than society demanding changes in government.

I believe all history should be taught to our children, not just the history “we” find trendy at the moment. That includes, of course, black history, which is a huge part of American history and very important for people not to forget, particularly the unpleasant parts of it so they may not be repeated.

But I hope we never lose sight of the common denominator among us all. American by birth or legal process makes us the same. We may worship on different days, have different native languages, enjoy different cuisines, but we all are the same at heart.

I worry if while working so hard to embrace each other’s differences we’ve come to ignore or even despise our similarities. I hope not.

Tom Meredith lives in Little Egg Harbor.

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