This month is Black History Month. I’ve been listening to different people on TV talking about their Black hero. The most frequently mentioned are famous and familiar names, all worthy: MLK, Harriet Tubman, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Elijah Cummings, the late John Lewis and either Obama. My Black hero is an unknown man.
My mother, who came from a fairly conservative Italian family in Boston, was a bit of a radical activist housewife. She raised us to see every human being — gay, straight, liberal, conservative, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American — as equals and, as such, deserving of the same rights and opportunities we as heterosexual whites enjoyed.
Later in life, I wondered how she evolved to this position, bringing us to protest marches on just about every social issue there was.
Growing up, I naively believed that is how the world was since the people we socialized with shared the same beliefs.
The year was 1964, and we were attending a rally for President Lyndon B. Johnson. We arrived early at Union Plaza in San Francisco so we could be in the front. My mother’s goal was to let LBJ know that she supported his efforts for civil rights. Say what you will about President Johnson but, other than Abraham Lincoln and not Donald Trump, no other president did as much for the rights of Blacks, doing so at great risk to himself and the Democratic Party.
Just before the president arrived, the police formed a line around the stage. As the president exited the car, the police locked arms, forming a human chain. When the president stepped up to the podium, the crowd surged forward. My neck was at the height of the locked arms, and I was being strangled.
My mother was in a panic trying to push the police backwards while pulling me away, but she was unable to. My mother started yelling at the cop to help.
The officer shrugged his shoulders and said he could not break the arm lock, that the president’s safety had priority. I remember gagging and struggling for breath.
As I was passing out, I saw the officer knocked backwards. I was suddenly lifted high off the ground and placed on the shoulders of someone who was carrying me away from crowd, my mother running behind and crying, repeating “thank you, thank you for saving my baby.” I remember thinking: “I am not a baby; I’m 8.”
When we cleared the crowd, the tall man put me down. My mother, still in tears, thanked him for putting his life in danger to save me. I didn’t realize at the time what she was talking about. To me, he was an adult saving a kid, which is what adults do. To the world, he was a Black man in the 1960s pushing a white cop. I later learned watching TV that in the Southern states, there had been beatings and lynchings for much less.
Without this man, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the life I’ve been fortune enough to experience with all of the privileges a white kid possesses. I’ll never know why this total stranger saved a young white boy putting himself at risk unless, like my family, he didn’t see us as different races, but members of the same race : the human race.