Martin King and The Impact of a Scout Jamboree
Rightfully, all the talk this week is about the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. Allow me to share a Boy Scout experience that made the an indelible impression of a kind directly related to his speech. It’s especially relevant, I say, because these are the kinds of experiences that come out of eating, sleeping, cooking, traveling together. And why the experience of a “summer camp” should extend to every American kids age 12 and up.My “camping experience” was the Boy Scouts National Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1954.
Picture an incredibly excited boy, age 12, getting on a train in Southern California that would take him to Chicago, New York, Washington D.C, then one full week in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, (learning about how Washington and his troops nearly starved and froze there one long winter.). After that, our train took us south to New Orleans then west across the “southern route”. …Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and on to California.
The whole of it had a lot to do with me “catching the travel bug” — which might well have been the chief driver for the fact that I have lived overseas for almost twenty years; not to mention making stops – sometimes long ones – in around 100 foreign countries, (by bus, thumb, sail, sea, train and air.). That’s the “macro” of this “camping story:.
Now the “micro” — two hard-hitting “lessons” in one day!
FIRST LESSON: New Orleans Train Station. The instant the train stopped in New Orleans, where the temperature and humidity were god-awful, I jumped off and headed for a water faucet. I easily recall spotting two of them, one with a very long line, and the other with nobody drinking from it. Quick as a cat, I started to gulp from the one without a line leading up to it. Almost instantly, I was firmly tapped on the shoulder and told (in no uncertain terms) that “this one is for the niggers“……”yours is over there“. Huh? Are you kidding me??? What choice did I have but to go to the end of the line so I could drink from the Whites Only fountain — clear marked had I stopped for just a moment to see the signs. Here was my first lesson in the ‘ways of the South’ circa 1950’s.
SECOND LESSON — New Orleans Night Life. This one – perhaps – the more impressionable ? –Later in the evening our scout master, the kindest, nicest funniest, most wonderful person I and my troop had ever met — who just happened to be black — informed all of us that he could not join us in the fancy-dancy restaurant that night! How come? Why not? “Well, kids, it’s because I’m a Negro…but don’t worry I’ve made arrangements to have so-and-so take you to it — I’m sure you will have a great time. That supposed to be the best restaurant in America!” I still remember the name of the restaurant, Antoine’s) So, the rest of my Scout buddies just nodded; and off they went.
I was the only one to ask: “What are YOU going to do?” With what I would latter learn to call a “crooked grin”, he told me that he ‘would find something to do; don’t worry about me.”
I will never know if it was the ‘crooked grin’, the glint in his eye, or my own sense that I thought his not being allowed to come into one of the Big Stops on this 10,000 mile train journey, was just plain rotten. Or if I didn’t want to wear a coat and tie on a hot night in a fancy restaurant. So, I asked if I could come along…and off we went.
How was I to know how wide my eyes would be opened!
In what seemed like a “New York Minute” my Black Scout Master,He found some ‘joint’ crammed and jammed with deliriously (it seemed to me) happy Blacks. I know there was terrific food, spicy stuff, hot, tasty like nothing I had ever put in my mouth. But what really, really “got” me was the music, and my Scout Master, with this 12 year old white kid in tow — for him like having a warm puppy — I assure you he never had a moment where he wasn’t being dragged to the dance floor. Whooping up. And OMG….the women! ‘ nuff said.
So, that’s my story. On the whole entire 10,000 mile train journey, includingthe time at Valley Forge, New York, Washington D.C., those two incidents in New Orleans have a lot to do with how passionate about the thought of the Eugene Youth Festival. And how in tune I was when I watched Dr. King give his “I have a dream speech, nine years after my stop in New Orleans.