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Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Warren K. Leffler (digital file: cph ppmsca 03128)

Long before the Black Lives Matter movement, Civil rights was the popular phrase in the 1960s. And just like 2020, reports about protests, marches, riots, fires, murders, and chaos saturated the news. The uproar over a recent protest in suburban Hugo, Minnesota, and the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, reminded me of a personal slice of this history.

I was with my Mom, older sister, and Grandma at a chicken place in Tucson, Az. I must have been seven or eight years old, and that would have made it around 1964 or 1965 or so. I don’t remember the name of the place, just that we ordered at the counter, sat at a table, and ate chicken. Apparently, most of the other people in the restaurant that night were Black.

My Mom liked to watch the TV news and I had seen story after story where the news guys talked about civil rights over video of people marching in the streets and police hitting them with water cannons and clubs. I didn’t get it – what does civil rights mean and why are police doing this to people marching in a parade?

So, as we ate our chicken, that’s when I decided to ask my question. “Hey Mom, what does ‘civil rights’ mean anyway?”

I’ve had feedback over the years that my voice is loud, and I’m not always as aware of my surroundings as I should be. Maybe that all started on this night. Looking back, I see a racially tense situation with a group of three White women and an annoying boy, surrounded by a potentially hostile group of people from a different ethnic group. But at the time, I had no clue about any of this; I just wanted to know what civil rights meant and why people marched in parades all the time, and why so many people were mad about it. The question had been bugging me and I figured now was a good time to ask since we were eating dinner together. Isn’t dinnertime when families are supposed to talk?

Mom and my sister swallowed hard and tried to shush me up. But the more they tried to give me hints that maybe this was not a good time or place to talk about this, the harder and louder I pushed for an answer. After a while, my sister told me to just shut up before we start a big fight. Of course, my next question was, “Fight about what? I just want to know what civil rights means!”

A very nice Black woman wandered over and invited herself to sit next to me in our booth. She asked me if I was trying to start a fight. My Mom and sister and grandma squirmed. I said no, I just want to know what civil rights means. She explained it and why people were protesting, surely trying her best to give me answers in language an eight- year-old could understand. I don’t remember much of what she said, only that she seemed nice. Why was everyone so nervous?

I said thanks and she said you’re welcome. And then she told me it would be best if I didn’t bring it up anymore while we were there. Tense situation diffused.

Like so many childhood memories, that night faded. Except the reaction when I blurted out my question. That stayed in my head. I asked Mom about it later and she told me all these protesters should be in jail. Most of them probably didn’t even know what they were protesting about. Martin Luther King and others like him were radicals trying to stir up trouble and everyone would be better off if they just got jobs instead of marching in the streets.

Sound familiar?

I wish I could report wisdom beyond my years and that I gently but firmly corrected my Mom about civil rights in the 1960s. But the truth is, I believed my Mom and other adult role models around me, and that led me to an attitude about race I now deeply regret.

Today, we look at people like Martin Luther King and John Lewis as great men, and we see MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech as a watershed event. But at the time, many, including me in my youth, saw MLK and other protesters as hostile street radicals who wanted to burn America down. It didn’t help when a few adopted “burn, baby burn” as a slogan. The fight was on, and in riots across America, lots of people ended up battered and bloodied. MLK and others ended up dead.

The details are different in 2020, but provocations, protests, riots, and fires rage across America again. And that leads to my grownup questions. For the people who want to burn America down this time, how will pandemic-ravished ashes and dead bodies improve your lives? And for the people who want to shoot first and ask questions later, how will the resulting civil war improve your lives?

Sometimes a nice lady in a booth in a chicken joint has more power than an army. I wonder if she was an angel. We could use more like her.