On an April day in 1968 my fellow high school classmates and I marched down Commonwealth Avenue toward Boston Common, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. It was a defining moment in my salad days as a budding anti-war activist and I was feeling pretty cool ... cool, that is, until my mother, who had been getting her hair dyed at the beauty parlor along the route, came running out of the shop with her hair wrapped in tin foil spikes like a purple porcupine -- waving excitedly and proudly calling my name.
I furtively waved back (thinking, "Now, ma? It's the revolution!") and marched on. At one point I zigged while our group zagged, and I fell in step with the wrong crowd. That crowd being those zealots known as the Weathermen. I didn't know how I recognized them, as they weren't exactly chanting "We are the Weathermen, Hey Hey Hey." But it wasn't long before I found my original group where Hoffman was addressing the crowd in the Common. He was pointing toward the John Hancock building and in his thick Boston accent he hollered, "John Hancock wasn't an insurance salesman. He was a f...ng revolutionary!"
In 1968 our country was in turmoil. And it was the year I grew a social conscience, thanks largely to my 25-year-old English teacher, Mr. Goggin. Mr. G. taught us there actually was a whole world outside of our little Newton, Mass. universe. He introduced us to films such as Citizen Kane and The Seventh Seal. Prior to that, the highlight of my movie-going experience had been awaiting the fate of the kidnapped teen idol in Annette and Frankie's Beach Blanket Bingo.
As for books? Outside of the ones I had to read? Why read when I could shoot pool or watch The Mod Squad or The Beverly Hillbillies? Mr. G. changed that, too, and when I headed off to my summer job as a counselor at Camp Naticook, I schlepped a satchel of books that included Soul on Ice and Manchild in the Promised Land. During free periods I'd sit on a rock, nose buried deep in my book ... ok, until I heard the clarion call of a nearby game of Capture the Flag. But I still finished every one of those books. That might have even been the summer I started thinking about joining the Peace Corps when I was old enough, which I did.
Our high school had hosted a number of speakers that year, each one more inspirational than the next. One of those speakers was the comedian/civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He is the reason I took a trip down memory lane today, as I had just read that he is the subject of a new off-Broadway play.
For reasons I cannot begin to understand, because I have a sieve for a memory, the words he spoke at my high school that night have stayed with me all these years. Then there was the way he spoke them, in what I can only describe as quietly, pleadingly and filled with melancholy.
He spoke about the Statue of Liberty as if she were a person. A deeply sad and disappointed person because America had not become the welcoming haven described in the words on her base:
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
We weren't keeping our promise in 1968. Today, do we even remember what that promise was?