Eighteen months before we tore down the gym fence and occupied Hamilton Hall, my mother, brother and I received a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. It read:
“Deeply saddened to learn of the death of our dear friend Bob Spike. His death comes as a great loss to the nation and to the fellowship of the committed. He was one of those rare individuals who sought at every point to make religion relevant to the social issues of our time. He lifted religion from the stagnant arena of pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. His brilliant and dedicated work in the National Council of Churches will be an inspiration to generations yet unborn. We will always remember his unswerving dedication to the legitimate aspirations of oppressed people for freedom and human dignity. It was my personal pleasure and sacred privilege to work closely with him in various undertakings as we continue to grapple with the ancient evils of man’s inhumanity to man. We will be sustained and consoled by Bob’s dedicated spirit. Please know that we share your grief at this moment and you have our deepest sympathy and most passionate prayers for strength and guidance in these trying moments.”
My father was murdered, at the age of 42, in October 1966. The last time I met him, a week earlier, he was in the midst of what he told me was the dirtiest fight of his life. He was fighting to save a federal program called the Child Development Group of Mississippi, which LBJ had bartered away in return for the support of Southern Senators whose votes LBJ needed to continue the Vietnam War.
My father had been threatened with FBI gathered evidence about his homosexuality. His murder was cast as a homosexual murder, on the campus of Ohio State where he had just dedicated the new campus religious building. His murder remains unsolved today. No one has ever been arrested or charged. No clues were found. He was murdered, and his reputation was destroyed. Only recently has it begun to be resurrected, most notably in Taylor Branch’s biographies of Dr. King.
Another telegram from that day:. “Our heartfelt sympathy in your loss which is a loss for all of us.” This was from Stokely Carmichael.
My father wrote, shortly before his murder, “We pray also for the raising up of men who shudder less at death and who, by the hard unconventionality of their martyrdom, will illuminate the path that the rest of us travel.”
I wrote a book about all this which was published in 1973. Tonight I cannot bring myself to read words that I wrote 35 years ago. Not tonight, here, in a country that is even less free, more oppressive, far more captive to sanctimonious trivialities and, yes, even more murderous, than it was in 1968.
My own radicalization – if that is a fair description of outrage and grief and fear – may have come 18 months before we occupied Hamilton Hall, but I recognize that what all of you feel about those weeks in 1968 and 1969 is part of the same trauma that haunts me and plays over and over again in our memories, in our hearts.
Yes, I helped tear down the gym fence. I was in Hamilton all the first night. I slept on the floor in Math and the TPF chased me across the south lawn and down Broadway. And throughout those hours and days, I couldn’t shake the paranoid fear that we would all be killed. And some of you almost were. And thank goodness nobody was.
Last night was an astounding experience during which I suspect every one of us learned something new about what happened in 1968. Despite having grown up inside the civil rights movement, and my own painful legacy as a result of what happened to my father, when I heard, as we did last night, that a black man’s experience at Columbia was far worse than his life in the segregated South, this was a shocking revelation for me. I had never understood the personal pain that was being felt by black students here on campus. Of course I was very conscious of what was happening throughout the country during the Movement years, but I now understand that I was, at best, indifferent and, at worst, complicit in the persecution they suffered on this campus.
Of course what we did in the buildings and in our protests was an effort based on our sincere political beliefs about racism and the war. But, on a personal level, I was a Good German.
I want to ask Ray Brown, and Thulani, and Leon, and all of your brothers and sisters, to try to forgive me – and those like me. I want to ask all of the black students at Columbia in 1968 to try to forgive the adolescent self-absorption and intellectual mindlessness, even the privileged racism, which failed to grasp the reality of their suffering, which failed to reach out to them.
I realize this is a lot to ask. It is like asking me to forgive the people responsible for my father’s murder. I understand that asking for forgiveness is, in many ways, outrageous.
But I believe that, if you could forgive me, and forgive us, then perhaps one day together our children might begin to fulfil the ideals – freedom, justice, equality – which we all want them to share. If love could turn, and in that turning, avoid anger, then I believe our children could all come back to the beginning, and they could all be Martin’s children together, and together they could end this racist war, stop the torture, empty these prisons, feed and educate our poor – no matter whether they are legal or illegal immigrants and begin to save our world.- by Paul Spike