Monday's with Mike: Hail the troublemakers

February 3, 2014 • Posted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics, Uncategorized by

Here’s my husband Mike Knezovich with the first of his “Mondays with Mike” installments.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, I was 11 years old. Turmoil was everywhere—Viet Nam war protests, drugs, rock and roll, feminism, and of course, civil rights. Every thing was nuts, but still, in my little suburban world south of Chicago I felt safe. That all was going on, but it was going on out there somewhere.

My hometown of Lansing was largely blue-collar back then with a significant mix of white collar workers. Some dads commuted to the city, others to East Chicago and Gary Indiana for work in the steel mills. My mom was one of the few working mothers on my block— Esther taught elementary school

It was the post-war lower middle class:  protestants, Irish, Italian  and Polish Catholics, and a lot of Dutch Reformed. I knew there was at least one Jew…my classmate Moreen.  Not one single black person. Not one.

Lansing grew significantly in the 60s and 70s as a result of white flight from the South Side of Chicago, and there was a lot of bitterness and ugly racism . The n word was alive and well. The kids had horror stories about what had happened to their neighborhoods, and to them. Vivid tales of encounters with thugs—maybe some were true, but I’m sure many were fabricated or exaggerated. And in many cases, kids were simply repeating what they heard at home.

In adulthood, I learned that in all likelihood, lots of these folks in Lansing had a lot in common with black people who took their places. Redlining of neighborhoods by the government and the ensuing blockbusting by unethical real estate operators preyed on both groups.

My parents had grown up in a company coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh. They were the children of immigrants, and they had assimilated—as hard and as quickly as they could. Dad served in World War II, and went to college on the GI bill. Esther had cajoled her way into a local teachers college. They settled in Lansing by a confluence of odd circumstances.

My mom was a New Dealer, dad was just a guy who thought you should treat others well. He used the now politically incorrect term “colored.” On the other hand, the only time he ever struck me was when we ran across a black man at a local fishing hole and I made fun of the way he talked.

I don’t know and never will know what my parents were thinking or feeling about King in 1968. I think they were confused by it all.

For my part, I only sensed that Martin Luther King put people on edge. That he was some sort of troublemaker. That everyone around wished he would go away. When he did go away, I stayed up late into the night to watch special reports about MLK on TV. I learned he’d gotten himself arrested for the cause, I learned about the letter from a Birmingham jail. I learned that he was not a trouble maker. I learned that he was telling the truth to power.

I went to bed knowing lots of things—about life, about our country, about how the civil war really wasn’t over, about some of our neighbors, about my own little life—that really, I’d preferred not to know. And nothing was the same afterward. In his life and his death, King is the single public figure who has had the greatest personal impact on me. Not just about racial issues, or war–which he vigorously protested. Moreover, that we can live our lives in a certain way, and collectively create a reality where the person speaking the truth is the villain. It’s a lesson I try to keep in mind, not always successfully.

So, every MLK holiday feels to me like a double-edged sword. I see the celebrations, and I love that the history is retold, even if that history seems to take a back seat to folks getting in line to say great things about him. But I always feel like we skip the ugly parts—partly to spare ourselves. Lots of people thought of Martin Luther Kingas a hero when he was alive, but a great many thought he was the enemy. We have a tendency to take rightful pride in our country and its history, but we like to skip taking responsibility for the bad parts. And you can’t have it both ways.

My ambivalence about the holiday seemed to come to a head this year when the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday came on the heals of Nelson Mandela’s death, and then last week, Pete Seeger’s. I don’t equate these folks, but there is a common thread: in their day, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger  were considered the enemy by their own governments and a great many of their fellow citizens.

They were threatening. They were communists, terrorists. They were reviled, but  much of that gets lost in the media reports  published after they die. So does the fact that they were not angels. They were badasses, each in his own way.

We don’t’ seem to have their likes now—and I wonder if they would survive government’s power today. Anti-terrorism laws give wide berth to prosecution and the power of surveillance revealed by the NSA scandal makes J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Cointelpro look like quaint hi-jinx.

We do have troublemakers—the Snowdens, the Assanges—I don’t know that they rise to King or Mandela or  Seeger, but I lean toward applauding them.

Moreover, I thing that these celebrations of the people who were once reviled are necessary and important, but only if they are accompanied by us looking ourselves in the mirror and understanding that out of indifference or fear or ignorance, we’re probably getting it wrong right now about some perceived enemy among us.

Some troublemaker.

Barbara Gaither On February 3, 2014 at 10:20 am

Such a thought provoking blog written by Mike. I related on so many levels. Also of interest was the little fact that your parents were from a mining town near Pittsburgh. My parents were also from PA (not far from Pittsburgh) and my mother grew up in a mining town called Ronco. Small world sometimes.

Mike On February 3, 2014 at 11:05 am

Hi Barbara! My folks grew up outside of a town called Brownsville. My mom grew up in company-owned row house in a “town” that took the name from the mine: Vesta 6. My dad grew up about a 1/4 mile away on the edge of the Monongahela River in a row of houses they called “Waterbox” because there was a horse trough at the end of their street. I think the official name of the town is Denbo, but we call it all those things. I had no idea you had folks form Pittsburgh. Small world. Hope all is well with you and yours.

charlie sweitzer On February 3, 2014 at 10:43 am

Pardon the quaint lphrase–it dates me–Right On! Reminds me of ee cummings I Sing of Olaf Glad and Big–final line of stanza 4 “there is some shit I will not eat.” charlie

Joan Miller On February 3, 2014 at 10:50 am

Nice story, Mike. Puts things in perspective.

Barbara Gaither On February 3, 2014 at 5:52 pm

I just looked on the map and those places were a stone’s throw apart. Both of my parents were born and raised in that region and my mom’s grandfather ran the general store in their little mining town. Two of my uncles retired from US Steele. I love that part of Pennsylvania, though I do not get the chance to go often (most of the family has moved or died, sadly).

Brad On February 3, 2014 at 6:46 pm

What a terrific column, Mike, you’re off to a fast start but that doesn’t surprise me. Watch out, Beth, for the wretched revenge.

Al Hippensteel On February 3, 2014 at 7:19 pm

I too grew up in the south suburbs (Chicago Heights). It had a similar ethnic mix, however, it did include an established black population. There was plenty of prejudice and racism in that time frame of late 50’s and 60’s. We did attend the same schools starting at Junior High. If not a perfect situation, it gave young students an opportunity to interact with people who were different from you be they Italian and catholic or black and baptist.

Mike On February 3, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Al, I have a good friend (maybe you know him, initials m.w.) who grew up in Chicago Heights–he’s African American and he describes a very different situation than Lansing in my time. To hear him tell it, you were Italian or you were black. My mom’s maiden name–her parents came from Italy–was Latini. And she’d go to Chicago Heights to the “Italian store” to get prosciutto and capicola and the like for special occasions.

Lansing’s 100 percent different now, at least to the (now) outsider looking in. Thanks for weighing in, Al.

Bev On February 4, 2014 at 7:09 am

Interesting perspective. I think I’m gonna like Mondays with Mike!

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