By Doug V. D’Elia

 

Montgomery, Alabama. The year is 1965 and George Wallace had just been elected governor of the state on a platform of “Segregation now, tomorrow, and segregation always.” Ku Klux Klan leader, Asa Carter, has written Wallace’s inaugural address, and there is little doubt where the people of Alabama stand on human rights.

The overt signs of racism, new to this Massachusetts native, are everywhere.

African-Americans are called Negros, or worse. And as far as I could see Negros still sit towards the back of those big gas guzzling, over-sized, smelly buses even though it had been several years since the Rosa Parks inspired bus strike.

A large Confederate flag hangs proudly and defiantly above the State Capital Building, a reminder of the war between the Yankees and the Americans. The American flag is displayed on the top of a smaller building, barely visible behind the Capital.

I’m on leave with two other soldiers from Medical Training School at Hunter Air Force Base. We are to become medics. James is from Chicago, and Wally is from California, we’ve had liberal upbringings, and our experience with racism is very limited. Our experience with southern culture is so limited that we’ve never even heard of grits.

We are dressed in our civilian clothes as we walk into a downtown diner. It feels good to be out of uniform, but it doesn’t help us fit in. It’s as if every set of eyes in the diner is watching us. I’m thinking that it is probably pretty obvious that we are “From the base.” There always seems to be tension between the “basers” and the “townies.” We’re not from these parts and our ways are strange.

We stereotype them too. They move real slowly, not at the hectic pace of us northern boys, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we are being ignored.  I motioned to the waitress and ask if we can be served? She shakes her head, and tells us they won’t serve a Negro, and James is a Negro.

Now, I imagine they know we are in the military and defending their rights, but racism knows no favorites.  Shocked, indignant, and embarrassed we have little choice, but to leave to a chorus of smiles and smirks.  It’s difficult to maintain dignity in such an environment.  I’m angry and hurt and I want to tell them off, but I can see by the look in their eyes that they are used to settling such matters with violence not words.

                                                                  

Martin Luther King Jr. has just organized a freedom march from Montgomery to Selma and the natives are restless, their way of life is being threatened, and they take their right to treat people as inferior very seriously.  In fact just last year three freedom fighters had disappeared for three months before showing up in a dam having been lynched, beaten, and shot. Two of them were white.

And only a month earlier, a civil rights protester had been shot and killed by an Alabama State police officer.

The men at this diner are big men with small ideas, and passionately ready to defend them at any cost. They see themselves as loyal Americans, defending their freedoms. The freedom to teach their children racist and bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and chauvinism. Asking me to go to South East Asia to kill yellow people so they can stay home and subjugate black people. I’m not going to kill for you, so don’t thank me for serving.

Like Dr. King, I have a dream. I have a dream that someday I’ll be able to thank the people in that diner for serving. Thank you for serving my brother a cup of coffee. Thank you for buying him breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thank you for inviting him to your home to meet your wife and children, because it’s his beautiful black ass that’s keeping you in white hoods, taunt ropes, and bloody crosses.

The irony is James, Wally and I are not being asked to kill we are being asked to save lives. We don’t carry weapons. We are medics. James is going to save lives, boys From New York, California and Idaho, maybe even Alabama or Mississippi. It might even be the son of one of the big men with small ideas. 

It might be their son lying on the ground wounded with his guts exposed, crying out for his Mama, and James isn’t going to ask if she works at a diner in Montgomery. He doesn’t care.

James is going to save his life, because every life is precious regardless of ideology. 

The next generation needs to be taught a different lesson. They need to know better. 

So don’t thank me for serving you or the country you live in. I’m serving a higher power.

Waitress can I get a coffee over here?

 

Doug V. D’Elia (author, playwright, and poet) was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His first book of poetry, “26Point2Poems,” a collection of 26.2 poems about running was published in 2013. Doug served as a medic during the Vietnam conflict and his forthcoming book, “A Hundred Peaceful Buddha’s,” a collection of poems inspired by Vietnam, will be published later this year. Doug is working on his third book, “Mother Was Born at Woodstock.”