Tuesday April 2, 1968 was a very important day in my high school, and for my community. Those of us who participated knew that it was important, but we had no idea at the time how significant that day would become.
My high school, San Mateo High School, was a large suburban school that encompassed the full array of social classes and racial groups of our city (the two other high schools in the city were almost exclusively middle class and white). My class, the class of 1969, were juniors in the spring of 1968. The year book which used student ID pictures and was therefore inclusive, showed the class of 1969 as having 439 students, 13 percent of whom were black, 12 percent of whom were Asian American (primarily Chinese- and Japanese-Americans), and 4 percent Hispanic. Both the lowest income neighborhood and the highest income neighborhood of the city, as well as several blue collar and middle class neighborhoods, were included within the San Mateo High School district.
Recognizing the diversity of their student body, and the growing tensions in society, the (all white) administration and faculty (out of a faculty of ninety, two were black and one was Asian) SMHS decided that there needed to be some medium to bring students together to discuss racial issues. They called it something hokey like "the friendship club" and the first meeting was held during the lunch period on Tuesday April 2, 1968.
Of course I went. The meeting was held in a small seminar like room, and was packed. There were not enough seats for all those who attended. Most of the black students were on one side of the room, and most of the white students on the other side. We were there for 45 minutes, so I'm sure that many different things were discussed. The overall tenor of the meeting was anger and passion, but at the same time a sense of reaching out and attempts at understanding. I only remember one specific topic, one that made a huge impression on me. That topic was about naming -- about begin "black" not "negro."
My parents were from the south, Virginia, and had deliberately left the south because of racism. They had grown up in families where the descendants of African slaves were called either called "colored" (viewed as polite in the South) or by the "n" word (that is no longer acceptable in our society -- except when black rap singers and black comics say it). As part of their rejection of the racism of their families and communities of origin my parents had been very careful to teach me and my brothers to use the word "negro." So I was shocked to discover that this was no longer acceptable. The young men and women in that room on April 2, 1968 were adamant, they were "black." As one young man put it, looking directly across the table at me, "We don't speak Spanish. I don't call you "blanco," don't call me "negro," I'm black and I'm proud."
The meeting was declared a success by those who attended, and plans for other meetings were made. They never happened. History got in the way. Two days later, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on that balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
By April 6, 1968, violence and rioting had broken out in almost every major American city; through out the San Francisco Bay Area, violence had erupted in all the cities with large black populations. April 6, 1968 was the day that Oakland, California, police ambushed the Black Panthers. Eldridge Cleaver arrested with a bullet-shattered leg. Bobby Hutton shot and killed.
Violence spilled into the streets all over the San Francisco Bay Area, except for San Mateo. In San Mateo, there was sadness, mourning, remembrance, and peace. On Palm Sunday, April 7, 1968, nearly 10,000 people, black and white, turned out for a march from San Mateo's Central Park to the San Mateo High School football field to commemorate King's life and accomplishments. The line of march participants stretched for nearly a mile and was eight or nine wide in many places. In addition to the marchers, thousands of residents, lined the sidewalks, especially in the largely black and Asian neighborhood nearest the high school. Through much of the march, the participants sang "We shall overcome." I was there, marching in the middle of the line, with my father.
To this day, I believe the reason that San Mateo, remained peaceful, despite the violence all around us, was because, on April 2, some white people in authority in the high school, had made an effort to advance the cause of racial understanding; and some white and black students got together in a room and tried to listen to each other. The participants did this because they thought it was the right thing to do, not because a national figure had been martyred, and not because there was an immediate threaten of violence.