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Day of Despair

June 10, 2010 By:
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In his new book, Nothing Like Sunshine, Ben Kamin has attempted -- and for the most part, succeeded -- in relating what it felt like to be a committed left-wing Jewish teenager at the time of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, and how the dream of racial harmony seemed to crumble in a matter of hours for so many liberal-minded and quite sincere white people. We are so jaded now, after so many decades of bruising history, that we may no longer be able to summon up the purity of spirit that kept us afloat back then, when we all knew that we were not only on the winning side with civil rights but that we occupied the moral high ground as well. We were not deluded, Kamin's book reminds us, as he re-examines all the emotions and drama that ensued during that crucial period in American history.

Nothing Like Sunshine, published by Michigan State University Press, is a very personal book, the story of the author's friendship with a black classmate, Clifton Fleetwood (who liked to say of himself that he was "a Cadillac among men") and how that fellow feeling was undone after the murder of Dr. King. This is also a Middle Western story because the author and his classmate grew up in Cincinnati, a very small town-ish Ohio city (if one compares it to places like New York and Philadelphia), yet one that was not immune to the violence that rocked so many East and West coast urban centers in the late 1960s.

The work also has national implications because, as I've intimated, many young Jews lived through similar traumatic incidents at the time, some that left scars that never healed. Kamin was luckier than most because he would not forget the scars and persisted in trying to set things right. This quest for answers and possible reconciliation is also what his book is about.

As the author explains in the early pages of his memoir, Clifton Fleetwood had been his "indomitable crony" from the second month of seventh grade, which, for the author, arrived in September 1964. Kamin points out that he was "still cowering" when walking through the halls of Woodward High School, an "urban behemoth" that housed grades seven through 12, and which to him seemed "a great and strange multicultural patchwork of 3,600 students," as well as "a labyrinth of hallways and crevices and offices that -- I learned quickly and brutally -- were the stomping grounds of wandering thieves and thugs who, like bats, pounced upon innocent little seventh graders who had just matriculated from a cozy Hebrew day school of 55 monolithic tenderfoots."

One day during this early period at Woodward, a "grown man, an 11th grader, with a steel-wool dark beard to frame his fierce, angry ebony face stood over me once while I lamely turned the combination of my locker. When I wheeled around, he promptly punched me in the throat and took off, along with his two chortling escorts."

Kamin realized quickly that there wasn't much to be done about such random violence -- especially, not reporting them to an adult of any kind -- so he strove to offset them with whatever pleasures he might discover. Marching band was one, and it was there that he met Clifton, who was always among "the drums and cymbals, in the back section of the octagonal Band Room adjacent to the band teacher's cramped office.

"Clifton, black, brash, skinny, and very musical, would eventually become the drum major of our Bulldogs Marching Band ... . Besides attempting to play the B-flat clarinet, I became the assistant drum major in due time, thanks largely to Clifton's proactive stance with the Southern-born-and-bred Mr. Raleigh Taylor," who was the band's director.

Kamin makes clear at many points in the early pages that he "adored Clifton because he was funny and astute and, frankly, didn't regard me as his white friend. Just his friend."

'This Is Not for You'

But then came the assassination at a Memphis motel.

Kamin went to school the day after the murder -- though he was aware that the atmosphere in the neighborhood and the city at large was tense, to say the least; still, the minute he entered school grounds, he began searching for Clifton.

"I had thought about Clif- ton through a mostly sleepless night," writes Kamin, "and could not wait to see him -- it seemed like the most natural thing, under the circumstances."

But Kamin didn't see many familiar faces that morning as he approached school. In fact, there wouldn't be any classes that day. A Jewish basketball buddy of his, Elliott, warned him to leave immediately as he, himself, ran off.

When he finally arrived at the front entrance to the school, he saw many of the students already pouring out of the doors, their faces either heated or full of fear. One nasty fellow angrily said to him, "Kamin, you whitey Jews ought to clear out of here. You all killed Dr. King. We're going to break up the stores across the street."

Kamin still wondered where Clifton might be.

"It was then that about 400 black students filed out of the tall entrance doors and walked out onto the front green. They had been engaged in a forlorn sit-in just inside the school since dawn. Now they were still; they had stunned countenances. With great relief, I recognized my friend Clifton."

Kamin ran toward him, but was stopped "by the cold, menacing stares of his compatriots.

"Clifton's eyes gave me no encouragement. As he walked past me, he said, in a quavering voice: 'No, man. This is not for you.' "

What then ensued, Kamin writes, was a "morning-long, quiet protest and vigil by Clifton and his brothers and sisters. Not one white face was permitted to violate the sea of black pain. From time to time, glass was shattering across the street at the shopping center, and sirens wailed."

"As city patrol cars began to accumulate around our school," continues the author, "another group of teenagers formed in a far corner of Woodward's quadrangle. We remained within view of Clifton and the other protestors, but were socially and culturally removed from them and their emotion. The crackle of police walkie-talkies blew in the air between Clifton and me. Even from across the new gulf, I could see and was shaken by the vacuum in Clifton's eyes. As the Cincinnati police, on foot, grim, tentative, spreading through both crowds, ordered us to go home, I thought I saw my country vanishing across the front green of my high school."

This schism between friends -- once thought to be allies (at least in the author's mind) -- is what haunted Kamin, a rabbi and therapist, for most of his adult life. And it is what propelled him to take the journey -- to Memphis and the site of the crime; and then back to Cincinnati to search for Clifton -- which are the major incidents in this compact, enlightening book. It is not perfect -- at times, the prose is a bit heated, like the emotions that run through it -- but generally, the very particular nature of the narrative tells us in a more general sense about what was lost in the 1960s on the civil-rights front, and what can be retained -- and built upon -- in the new millennium through persistence, mutual understanding and love.

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