The passing of Rosa Parks inspires a glance back to 1955. I was eight in July that year and until I understood what was really happening in Alabama I alternated between fear and joy in my own little corner of the world, fear of being black in a white world, joy in discovering things about myself, others, and baseball heroes.
1955 was a year of awakening for me. It was a year that helped define what being a baby-boomer was, of what being a growing child meant. And, in a very important way, it helped me understand how to survive.
Emmett Til was lynched that summer; I remember he died a bit later during summer break from school. I had moved from a relatively calm, middle class, integrated neighborhood into what became one of the country’s most notorious public housing projects. I met a white kid who is still a great friend to this day. I saw many baseball games at Connie Mack Stadium, my father’s way of softening the blow of losing our house and my group of long time friends in North Philly.
I saw the wonder of Roberto Clemente, El Magnifico, on the field of my dreams and lost the attachment every young black kid had for, first Jackie Robinson, then Willie Mays.
When school started I saw that the ugliness that black folks faced in the south was present here in the north too. It was rooted deeply in the hearts of my Catholic brothers and sisters. But there were those, like the Mouse, who stood up for me, stood by me and shielded me from the fists and hatred aimed at me.
Some may read this and pass it along as just a bit of history, something an old guy writes about a time existing long before their own births. That’s okay. There may be a time they look back and can say a year helped define them as that year helped define me. I hope they keep open to life and its wonders. Lessons come hard and are contained in painful moments as well as joyous ones.
The balance between the pictures of Til’s abused body and my first glimpse of Clemente running the bases is tenuous but completely self contained in my mind’s eye. The dignity of a seamstress in segregated Montgomery bolstered my young psyche against the taunts of Irish and Italian children as I entered their school and helps inform me as we guide our son and daughter as they enter new chapters of their lives.
Before this fiftieth anniversary year passes I want to offer my thanks to 1955 for helping me become the man I am today.