Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2018 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr.!! Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
[from a transcript of remarks given at Bethel AME Church in Iowa City on January 16, 2017, edited for The Prairie Progressive]
Thank you for asking me to speak at Bethel, especially on this day. When I asked Mrs. Townsend what she wanted me to talk about, she said, just tell people why you’ve worked quietly over the years to help people who are struggling for their civil rights. The truth is, I don’t know.
Maybe it’s because my grandparents were immigrants to this country, and I grew up hearing their stories of persecution and poverty.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in Chicago, when it was known as the most segregated city in America, and might still be. At an early age I saw extremes of poverty and extremes of wealth side by side, for no good reason that I could determine.
Or maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to grow up around the time the transistor became cheap and available, and my friends and I could listen to the great American poet Chuck Berry all day and into the night. And then in high school, the golden age of Motown began. The sound of the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations, was everywhere. I was drawn to the music, and I was drawn to an old theatre down on the south side, on 47th St. and South Parkway. (South Parkway is now Martin Luther King Drive.) It was called the Regal, and it was home to live shows every weekend. On a lot of those week-ends, my friends and I would travel from our slice of life on the north side down to the south side, and see everyone from James Brown to Bobby Blue Bland, but best of all, the Motown Revue. In one night, for just $2.50, you could see some combination of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Little Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross, the Four Tops!
This was an important cultural experience for me, a white kid from a middleclass family, who was brought up to stay in his seat and clap politely. At the Regal, people were running up and down the aisles, laughing and shouting to friends, jumping up and down in their seats, going in and out for popcorn during as well as in between songs…it was exhilarating.
But I learned something else at those shows. It never seemed to matter to anyone that a handful of white teenagers were there. Nobody ever gave us any trouble, everybody was friendly, nobody asked us what we were doing there. We felt at home. But back home, up north, a lot of people would say, ‘You went down to 47th St? At night? You know, that’s a bad neighborhood.’ Well, I’ve heard that term Bad Neighborhood many times since then, and I learned what people usually mean by it, even here in Iowa City. Those early experiences at the Regal taught me to take it with a grain of salt.
So maybe it was my grandparents, or maybe it was the economic inequality that I saw as a child and couldn’t ignore, or maybe it was Smokey and the Miracles, that led up to my wanting to go to the March for Jobs and Freedom at the end of August of 1963. What a chance to see Dr. Martin Luther King and be a part what was predicted to be a quarter of a million people in our nation’s capital! My friend Ira and I scraped together a few dollars…my older brother loaned me $30 and promised not to tell our parents…and we took the train downtown to the Greyhound station. We waited in the hot dark station until that big bus pulled up with the words Washington DC on the front. We were actually within a few steps of getting on the bus when out of the shadows stepped Ira’s father. Well, we were busted, and Ira started trudging alongside his father. I started trudging with them, until Ira’s father said to me, ‘I just came to get Ira. You can do whatever you want.’
I looked at Ira, and I looked at the bus, and I went home with Ira and his father.
At the time I told myself I was being loyal to my friend. If he couldn’t go, neither would I. The truth is that I was 16 years old with little money and no place to stay in a city I’d never seen, and I was just a little too scared to go on my own. I’ve regretted it ever since.
Now, this might be the first time at a Martin Luther King Day celebration that you’ve heard a story about NOT going to the March on Washington, but I learned something that day that I’ve tried to live by ever since. When you’ve got a choice between getting on the bus or staying in the station, get on the bus! I know that all of you here today have gotten on the bus, that most of you have been on the bus your entire lives, so I say it mostly to the younger people here. When you’ve got the chance, get on the bus.
Many years later, I was a social worker for people who had been shut away in Iowa’s state hospital-schools for most of their lives. Many of you know some of them here in Iowa City who came back to live in their home towns after being institutionalized as children. I learned a lot about courage and resilience from them. To live and to get around independently, they often had to do something scary: get on the bus. Most of us don’t realize how confusing and frightening that can be if you’ve never done it before, but these folks did it.
More years later, I was a member of an organization that I generally respected, but I became disturbed by what seemed to be a strain of racism within its leadership. I grew discouraged when nothing I did had an impact, and I was on the verge of quitting the group as a matter of principle. But before I did, I asked for advice from a community organizer in Des Moines. Some of you might have known her. Her name was Evelyn Davis, she was the founder of the Tiny Tots Day Care Center, and just about everyone in Des Moines knew her as ‘Mom.’
When I told Mom Davis my predicament and wanting to quit this organization, she informed me that principle was no good if you don’t fight for it. In so many words she told me to stay on the bus! Since then, I’ve had moments in every job I’ve had, where resigning on principle was tempting, but I learned from Mom Davis that it’s almost always better to fight from within, than to give up and get off the bus.
Mom Davis once said something else that I’ve tried to live up to. She said, ‘I never got a paycheck big enough to shut my mouth.’
Mom was one of the people I first met when the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for President. Your former pastor, The Rev. Dial, was another. When Rev. Jackson decided to enter the Iowa caucuses in 1987, I knew that was one bus I had to get on. I learned a lot from the people on that bus.
I didn’t get the chance to talk with Rev. Jackson very much, but once I asked him a question. The Reverend was obviously a long shot for President, twenty years before Barack Obama came along, and many people thought it was naïve and foolishly idealistic to be on the Rainbow Coalition bus. I asked him, what should I tell the people who, somewhat mockingly, call me an idealist? Rev. Jackson answered, ‘tell them you’re a realist with high ideals.’ That’s another thing I’ve tried to live up to over the years.
One time after a campaign event at a hotel in Cedar Rapids, I was with campaign manager John Norris in a van picking up Rev. Jackson at the front entrance. As we pulled into the circle driveway, Jackson was pacing in the big lit-up doorway of the hotel. He got in the van without a word. I thought to myself, he seems angry, but we were only a few seconds late, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Finally he turned to Norris and said, ‘don’t ever leave me exposed like that.’
I looked back at the front of the hotel, and sure enough, the brightly-lit double-doors provided a perfect frame for an assassin’s bullet. It drove home to me the ever-present daily danger that Rev. Jackson lived with, just as the Rev. King did. And the necessity of never letting it stray far from your mind.
Since then I’ve also learned, many times over, the ever-present daily danger that many people live with, dangers that a white person like me rarely experiences. I don’t have to be extra vigilant and take precautions that many people do every day. I don’t have to worry if I look presentable enough to go to the grocery store, or if I’m talking too loud, or if I might appear to be loitering. I’ve never been asked for three forms of ID to cash a check. I’m not followed around by a security guard in the aisles of a store. I don’t have to be extranervous if a police officer pulls me over. I wasn’t burdened with having to explain all of this to my children.
These are just a few snapshots of some of what I have learned from others. And as I reflect with you on Martin Luther King Day, they make me think about the challenges our country faces, with a new president just four days from now. Most of you have faced these challenges throughout your entire lives, but I want to conclude by saying again, especially to the younger people here: don’t let these challenges scare you. Don’t be left at the station, as I was 53 years ago. Get on the bus if you’re not already on! If you’re already on, stay on the bus! And let’s remember what Dr. King would most want us to keep in mind: we’re all on the bus together.
–Dave Leshtz is a former Chair of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.