Posted by: SJS | April 3, 2018

The Goldwater voter who admired MLK

It was fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.  I was a junior in high school and I can remember that day like it was yesterday.  The evening before his death, Dr, King delivered one of his most memorable speeches and– in a way that was prophetic– spoke of the proximity of his own assassination.  I have listened to that speech hundreds of times. It never fails to inspire me and to rekindle my idealism, especially when that idealism is at a low ebb.

At the time of Dr. King’s death, my father had become a strong admirer of the man.  This represented quite a transition for Red, who had voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.  As Red became more attuned to the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, I noticed that he was paying more attention to the arguments put forward by Dr. King.  I am quite sure that Red’s position on the Viet Nam war was heavily influenced by the opposition voiced by Dr.King began with ever greater intensity in 1966 and 67.  Having spent a good portion of his Navy career patrolling dense, enemy-controlled jungle rivers in a PT boat in 1945, Red found it hard to understand why young men the age of his son had to do the same thing in Swift Boats in a war against an enemy that had never attacked the United States.  The words of MLK gave expression to the growing anti war convictions of Red Stahley.

In the days following Dr. King’s murder, my father kept his car lights on during the day time–which had become a way of expressing grief over the loss of a significant national figure.  I vividly remember one car ride with my father on a Sunday afternoon when we were on Broad Street in Philadelphia.  Another driver flipped off my father and Red returned the gesture with gusto.  At an intersection a few blocks further north, stopped at a red light, on Broad and Olney, some guy yelled “Go to hell you n_____-lover.”  Red remained motionless, waiting for the light to change.

When the light turned green, Red looked calmly in the direction of his heckler then shouted, “Go f— yourself, you worthless punk.” before slowly driving away, never taking his eyes off the man.  I remember praying fervently that my father would step on the gas and get us out of there.  My father’s ability to hold a stare was beyond impressive–as I knew better than most.  All these years later, I remain convinced that if that man had dared to open his mouth again, Red would have pulled over our ’66 Dodge and jumped out.  Fortunately, silence prevailed.

“Whoa dad,” I said.  “You really told him a thing or two.”  Red just smiled and told me to get the Phillies baseball game on the radio.  “I fought in World War II to protect the free speech of a–holes like that,” he said. “And I fought to protect my free speech rights to tell them exactly what they can do to themselves.”  Point well taken.

In the above photo, Dr. King holds a photo of the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964 when they were working to register voters.  The witness of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner inspired  countless other young Americans to follow their example in promoting justice, equality, and the right to vote for all Americans.


Responses

  1. He was a womanizer from the start, but for some reason they forgave him as well as JFK and Clinton.

  2. That is true, GP, no question about it. His message of equality, justice, and forgiveness, however, was what our nation sorely needed to hear during his lifetime–and still needs to hear today. Every person I know is a complex mixture of good and bad qualities- and that certainly applies to me. The older I get, the more keenly aware I am of how deeply I need forgiveness and compassion. And I can only pray that my shortcomings don’t get in the way of the good I try to do each day. Thanks for sharing, Keep up the excellent work on your blog–your recent posts have been among your best ever. I continue to learn more and more from each new entry on the savage war in the Pacific. Your research is top notch. Steve

  3. A man to be admired and also Dr King.

  4. Thanks, Lloyd. I appreciate your continued support. S


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