My father worked just about every day on union business, political campaigns, and social justice initiatives. As a very young child I attended events with the rest of my family, once shook hands with Eleanor Roosevelt, saw President Kennedy speak in Atlantic City and President Johnson speak while somehow standing up in a convertible canary yellow Cadillac in a small Ohio town.
As a fourteen-year-old, l rode all night from outside Columbus to Atlantic City, traveling in a big smokey car with no air conditioning full of union guys and a lady, all eager to be about the union’s business and to see speeches by candidates for U.S. President Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy. The idea of seeing presidential candidates up close was exciting, especially in the intense political atmosphere following the assassination of Martin Luther King. After we arrived, I got up early every morning to get a good seat for the speeches.
During the days in Atlantic City the convention hall buzzed with a roar of frenetic energy. This was long before most of America quit smoking cigarettes and there was so much smoking in the huge convention hall that a cloud hovered over thousands of conventioneers for the entire week. In this hazy and exciting world, I waited for hours for Humphrey and then, days later, for Kennedy, and was thrilled by their speeches. Robert Kennedy was sun tanned, fit and charismatic. At age fourteen I had a limited understanding of the issues, but the man had an inspiring energy and hopefulness. Then, a short time after I returned to Ohio, RFK was assassinated at LA’s Ambassador Hotel. He was shot and killed standing beside UAW official Paul Schrade, who was also badly wounded. The men were shot the same evening RFK won the California Democratic Presidential Primary and became the de facto front runner for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination.
RFK’s death grimly informed my coming of age, especially because of Schrade’s shooting. A few years before my father had gone to California to march with Cesar Chavez, Paul Schrade, UAW President Walter Reuther, and others. Now Schrade was gravely injured and insisted, from that time to the present, that Sirhan Sirhan was only one of two shooters. His claim was supported by medical and autopsy evidence of gunpowder residue burns on Kennedy’s skin and hair where the bullet entrance wound at a range of one inch behind his right ear. I had to wonder at how the hopefulness and energy that I had seen in Atlantic City just weeks before had been struck down.
As the spring of 1968 unfolded, the world bristled with social conflict, and seemed on “the eve of destruction” as one popular song proclaimed. Still, I was young, hopeful and eager to see the world. Weeks Later, my brother Joe and I rode an all-night bus full of union people to Washington, D.C. to join Coretta Scott King in the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. I marched beside Ms. Coretta Scott King at one point and was saddened by the black dress and funeral veil that she wore in the hot humid June weather. We went to Resurrection City on the Capitol Mall and heard speeches by various civil rights and political leaders. I took several photographs of Resurrection City and was energized by the huge number of people in the march.
Returning to Hilliard, Ohio, I looked for ways to carry a message of civil rights and social activism. With RFK gone, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Party candidate for President. He was less charismatic to be sure, but still a decent man. I actively campaigned for him and became the spokesperson for Humphrey in a campaign group at the Hilliard High School that fall.
Our high school had an event where representatives of Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Hubert Humphrey for their respective candidates. The Nixon and Wallace speakers were received respectfully but when I rose to speak in support of Humphrey heckling began. The teachers and school administrators for whatever reason did little to stop it. Ironically, the lead heckler was the daughter of one of the high school teachers. When I complained to a teacher about this rudeness after the event, I was lectured on my need to be “more diplomatic.” This advice did not bode well for the months to come.