Friday, June 5, 2020

A Memory of Civil Unrest

Recent events made me remember a spring night from my childhood...

When I was growing up, I lived on a tree lined street  in a mid western city with my mother, father, and little sister. My life revolved around school, Barbie Dolls, and playdates with my best friend.

A few days before, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Tensions in many US cities were high.
On the night of April 8, 1968, dinner was over, the kitchen cleaned, and my sister and I had joined our mother in her bedroom to settle in for a night of television. I don't remember what we were watching, but I remember when program stopped abruptly.

"We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special report."
On screen was a reporter from the local CBS affiliate. He reported that rioting had
broken out in Avondale, a predominantly African American neighborhood.

This was a different time. There were no twenty-four-hour news networks, no cable,
no satellite trucks, no computers or cellphones. Information was slowly coming into
the station. There was no film footage or photographs, just a report of escalating

The TV reporter asked us to stay tuned, saying he would be back with more details as
On vacation in Plymouth MA
the story developed. Regular programming resumed as the phone rang. 

I don't know who was on the other end of the phone, but whoever it was delivered more disturbing news. The last thing my mother said before hanging up was, "I need to call your father."

My dad had worked late and was still at his office near the University. I think she tried to dial the familiar number on the rotary phone three times before the call was connected. She yelled into the phone. "You need to come home! They're rioting in Avondale!" She ended the conversation saying, "Whatever you do don't go through Avondale!"

There were several routes from my dad's office to our home. His drive home should have taken no more than fifteen minutes. An hour later, my mother went downstairs to wait for
my father, trying to conceal her fears from my sister and me. This was becoming increasingly difficult as more people were calling to say what they were hearing or seeing. 

With my dad & sister on Easter Sunday.
Finally, we heard my dad's car pull into the driveway. 

My sister and I ran downstairs to greet him as we usually did when he came home from work, but the acrid smell of smoke stopped us at the top of the landing. 

"They're burning down Burnet Avenue! I didn’t see any police and people are running wild; breaking windows, looting, and I heard gunshots. It's a war zone!"

My father had ignored my mother's plea to avoid Avondale, and instead drove into the
middle of the riot. In retrospect, and remembering the strong smell of smoke on his clothing,
I’m guessing my father parked his car and walked into the melee. He knew several business owners in the area. Knowing my dad, he would have wanted to help.

I had never seen my parents disagree about anything. But on this night my mother yelled uncontrollably. "I told you to stay away from Avondale! You could have been killed!"
For the first time in my life, my sister and I saw my mother cry. We quietly went back

My world no longer made sense; my city was burning. People were shooting. My
dad used the word war.

I was a child. 

I was scared.

Through adult eyes, I realize my mother, while angry, cried tears of relief that my dad
had made it home safely.

My sister and I went to bed early, but I couldn't sleep. I was terrified that the
rioters would come to our house miles away from the chaos. My mother assured me they
would not. I didn't believe her. 

Early the next morning my mother called the Reverend Mother at Sacred Heart
Academy, our school, to say that my sister and I would not be coming to school that
day. The Reverend Mother said, "Mrs. Allen, we've made the decision not to open
today. We too, are devastated about the events in our city and in our country."
Sacred Heart Academy was closed for the rest of the week.

That afternoon, my family piled into our green Chevrolet and headed to Burnet
Avenue. The day before this had been a thriving business area. I remember an A&P,
two dry cleaners, a greengrocer, beauty and barber shops, a Rexall Drugstore with a
lunch counter, and a Texaco Gas station. There were offices of doctors, dentists
and other professionals. 

I knew this area, but on this day, it was unrecognizable. Things were quiet now as
residents and shop owners were cleaning up and assessing damage. Some buildings
had been burned and several families displaced. Other buildings had broken windows
or were in the process of being boarded up. Some buildings had the words Soul
Brother painted on the plywood boards covering the windows. My parents knew several
business owners on Burnet Avenue, and on this day, we visited several.  

I remember stopping at a dry cleaner. When the owner gave my sister and I a lollipop,
I asked, "Why do so many buildings have Soul Brother painted across the front?"

He explained. "The businesses that say Soul Brother are owned by Black people. This
lets the rioters know not to damage our property."

I was confused. "But it's okay to damage the other buildings?"

My dad answered. "No, it's not right! But people are angry.,"

My five-year-old sister asked, "But why are they angry?"

The adults looked to one another.  

My memory stops there.

Over the years, there would be many discussions about Martin Luther King Jr., the
Civil Rights Movement, racial inequalities, and being Black in America. But those
discussions would come later. On this day, my family became witnesses to a dark
chapter in our city's history.

In the days after the assassination of Dr. King, there were riots in several major US
cities.  It was the greatest wave of social unrest the United States had experienced
since the Civil War. The riots in my mid western  city lasted for two nights. The National
Guard was called to restore the peace.  More than two hundred people were injured
while almost three hundred were arrested. Two people were killed.

I had not thought about this incident until the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the
acquittal of the police officers accused of using excessive force and beating Rodney
King; an event which had been videotaped and viewed in television broadcasts. 

While I had been in Los Angeles for seven years, my parents didn't like me living
alone in such a big city. I called my parents to say I was fine and far away
from the rioting. This was not true. I watched the fires on Hollywood Boulevard from
the safety of my apartment building's rooftop in a residential area. I was close enough
to hear the voices of the looters and rioters just blocks away. Smoke was in the air for
days. Just like that eight-year-old girl, I was scared.

I'm reminded of that incident from my childhood today. I'm not scared. I'm angry,
stressed, and hoping this time, just maybe the message of racial inequality will be
heard. This is as I listen to the sirens and helicopters around my home in response to
the protests over murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

At my sister's backyard wedding
I've imagined myself going back to visit myself as a child the night the riots started.  I'd hug her, then assure her that she will be safe. I'd let her know that this will not be the last time she'll experience civil unrest in her lifetime. I'd remind her to be safe and smart as she moves through life. I'd tell her to see the best in people while remembering that nobody is perfect. I'd tell her to agree to disagree, and to always
keep an open mind. I'd explain that she'll have to accept the fact that some people's minds will never be changed. Then, I'd ask her what she would like to talk about. We'd have an honest conversation about things important to a child, even the difficult messy subjects. 

Most importantly, I'd let her know, it's okay to be scared because sometimes the
world can be a scary place. 

We got through 1968.

We got through 1992.

And despite everything that has happened this year, we will get through 2020.

I believe this. I must.


  1. So touching and beautifully written! Your memory is so vivid!

  2. WOW! Vivid and compelling. I would do that talk in a meditation with your younger self. It's a form of energy healing that I'm familiar with.
    I'm right there with you. We'll get through this. And this time, it is my sincerest belief that effective change WILL happen. This time, it's world wide.
    All effected are in my prayers, constantly, you included. Blessings times a Godzillion. Namaste' <3

  3. Donna! Donna! So beautifully written. So thorough in your description of an experience that was personal but also shared by many of us. I love your message. Thank you.