A Word In Edgewise: Once Upon a Time…


One December night in 1960, Jackie Washington, a slender, young, black folk singer, was walking down Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue when a police car pulled over and two officers approached him. His offense? “Being abroad by night.” Washington was taken to the station, having sustained a broken nose and twisted ankle, and charged with assault and battery.

The case came to court, but only the two officers’ (plus four police witnesses’) testimony was heard. The officers’ lawyer alleged that Washington’s claims were “Cheap counterfeit propaganda” designed to “enhance his position as a performer.”

Another night, after last call, I was wandering somewhere between Sporters bar and the Charles Street jail, when a squad car pulled up and an officer asked what I was doing. I explained I’d lost my ride and I was gong to walk over Longfellow Bridge back to my Cambridge apartment. After a moment’s conference with his partner, he leaned out and nodded at the Bally Ale bottle I was clutching. “If you’ll put that down, we’ll give you a ride home.”

In those days Boston had politician Louise Day Hicks who disingenuously stated, “While a large part of my vote probably does come from bigoted people, … I know I’m not bigoted.” The notorious anti-busing riots were enshrined in Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning “The Soiling of Old Glory,” his photo of a black man being attacked by a white man wielding a huge American flag.

I was the same age as Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi in 1955, and Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, also murdered there in 1964. I see what happened continuing now, with black males being choked to death or shot. When a customer can selectively be killed at a Walmart for inspecting one of their products, something is very, very wrong. It has been for a very, very long time: please don’t tell me that America isn’t a racist country, North and South.

As is so often the case here, I have more subject than solution, but until it is recognized country-wide that we do have a sickness, we will not move toward a cure.

I was driven home safely that night. Washington was found guilty, but appealed and won his case, more than many black men today live to do.

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