Nixon campaigning by Ollie Atkins
It was 1968 and Martin Luther King had just been shot. I was 11 years old. A lot of neighborhood boys of about the same age were primed and ready. The long-awaited race war was finally coming! This was the boiling point! They were all going to be on the winning team, which of course would be the white team!
But I was confused. The neighborhood boys seemed to know everything about this inevitable race war and exactly how it would play out. It seemed like they learned all about it in school. But I wasn’t even sure what a race war was. I basically figured it out by putting the two words together. Race + war. Black against white? Like chess? Except much more bloody than chess I’m sure.
Maybe I didn’t know anything about this race war all the other neighborhood kids knew so much about because I didn’t go to the same school as them. They went to my neighborhood public schools and the Catholic schools down the street. But I was in a wheelchair so I wasn’t permitted to go to those schools. I was bussed away to another public school that was strictly for disabled kids. Because we were disabled, we were the education system’s rejects. The student bodies of my neighborhood public and Catholic schools were 1,000 percent white. But because our school was the school for rejects, the student body at my school was about 20 percent white.
They never taught us anything about preparing for a race war at the reject school. And none of the black kids, like my friend Jerome, seemed like they were particularly itching for a fight. None of them appeared to be bracing for a race war, even though one was going to erupt any day now and their team was going to start it. And when that day comes, I wondered, what will be my obligations? Will I be required to join the white team? Will I have to shoot Jerome? Will he have to shoot me first? What if I don’t want to join the white team? Will I be burned out of my house? Can I join the other team if I want to? What if I don’t want to join either team?
I knew a lot about war because I watched a lot of movies and TV shows about war. Each side has a general. Is the white general Richard Nixon, I wondered? Who’s the black general? Martin Luther King is dead. Wars end when one side surrenders. The generals meet on the battlefield and the loser hands over his sword. According to the neighborhood boys, at the end of the race war if the black team wins, they’ll kick us out of our neighborhood and move into our houses. And they’ll make us leave all the women behind. And what does the white team win? We don’t want to move into the black team’s houses, do we?
What will the white team win?
I was vexed and perplexed. Wars in movies and on television were straightforward. The rapidly approaching race war was ill-defined and messy. I didn’t know what to do so I did nothing. I never prepared for the race war. As time went by, I just figured it would never happen, no matter how much some people wished it would.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. He writes the blog Smart Ass Cripple, "expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010."