My friend Tony Robinson, a retired pastor with deep roots in Wallowa County, recounted his church and civil rights journeys in a blogpost yesterday, as answers to a grandson’s queries. The history begins with memories of growing up in suburban Washington D.C., and serving as an usher for the inauguration of John Kennedy when he was 12. And then being at the front, watching JFK’s funeral procession pass by just three years later. He told his grandson that his church, in a segregated suburb, introduced him to area black churches, and sent him to interracial summer camps, setting him on a path of pastoring to Hmong refugees and AIDs patients. His regret was not being at the 1963 March on Washington and hearing Martin Luther King’s famous words. His parents, like most of white suburban D.C., had feared violence.
I was in Washington D.C. in 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated and the city exploded in flames. And I ran from my apartment to the mall to watch Robert Kennedy’s funeral procession. It was an incredible year for our country, and for me.
My road to 1968 began in 1965, when I joined the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was a Kennedy program, and my joining had to do with his death, distaste for the growing war in Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Movement—I too missed the march on Washington and King’s 1963 speech. In the fall of 1967, I returned from two years in a Turkish village to work in the Washington Peace Corps office on a one-year internship. That fall saw the first anti-war march on the Pentagon. I marched with returned Volunteers and returned soldiers. There were armed men atop government buildings and helicopters overhead as we marched across the bridge toward the Pentagon.
The internship meant that I traveled the West Coast recruiting new Volunteers, visited training programs, and spent a month in Iran evaluating the Peace Corps program there.
The D.C. experience ended in the summer of 1968, when I went back to Turkey on Peace Corps staff. The tumult had spread. Turkey was not the same country I had left just a year earlier. It was now questioning the large American military presence on radar bases that peered at Russia and flight bases that launched U-2 spy planes. Anti-Americanism started with a rumble and grew to a roar, with the Peace Corps being asked to leave in 1970.
Sometimes, when I worry about the state of the country and the well-being of friends and family members, I remember 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and Washington D.C. on fire. My 1968 trip to Iran taught me that the Shah was going narcissistic and that the opposition was growing—the Islamic revolution was not a surprise to me. I knew one of the American hostages; he’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer Turkey and Iran before going to the State Department.
My earlier experience in Turkey had taught me that there were Christian Arabs, that Islam has divisions as serious as those between Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, and various branches of the Orthodox. I learned that there was an Eastern Front in WW I, and that refugees from that war were scattered across national boundaries—my village included Turkish refugees from Greece and Bulgaria. I learned that America and Israel were not the only, or the first place Jews fled to in the tumult of Europe before, during, and after WW II. I had a Polish Jewish friend who had escaped to Turkey during the War. My education in world history grew.
When I came to Wallowa County in 1971 and started hearing the Nez Perce story, I learned that Indians had been omitted when not lied about in my high school and college history texts. My education in American history had huge holes too.
If Tony’s early church experience primed him for a life of religious and social service to the poor, the African American, and Hmong, and AIDs sufferers, the Peace Corps was the church that opened me to a world wider, more interesting, and more brutal than any I had encountered in books, classes, and my middle-class white American Minnesota-California growing up.
And now, when Nez Perce and other tribal friends and writers describe perilous lives, lives disrupted by boarding schools, foster homes, loss of land and resources, educational and judicial discrimination, I have a reservoir of experiences in other places with other people that make those stories real.
And almost magically, I can go back to Peace Corps times, to the fires and assassinations of 1968, the people and the places that rebooted my understanding of history, and I can shine a new light on my Minnesota and California beginnings. The White Earth and Red Lake reservations in Minnesota, the Pala Reservation in California, the Ojibwe neighbors I never met, and the Luiseños that I labeled “Mexican” were Indians and pre-colonial cousins to the Nez Perce who are my neighbors now.
JFK and MLK changed a country—with tremendous upheaval—and they’re two of the reasons that Tony and I are who we are looking back on them from this same far place.
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