I sometimes think that the small mistakes in life—the actions that likely were not at life’s crucial inflection points—result in the most painful regrets. Little errors create long-lived regret, not because they were so important, but because they could so easily have been avoided—well, should have been, anyway.
The recent fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., got me thinking about this because some of my own small regrets involve Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. Let me explain.
I grew up in New Orleans in a family that was not particularly political. In fact, I cannot recall my parents ever talking about politics, though some of my relatives on my father’s side of the family did. When I was growing up, virtually every voter in New Orleans was a Democrat. Louisiana was part of the Solid South, where an overwhelming Democratic majority was a racist legacy against Reconstruction and the Republican Party. (In defense of Louisiana Democrats, I should add that the party did have its factions, some of which were less reactionary than others.) My earliest political memory is of being at a party at the house of a great aunt when I was about six. Someone expressed the view that, if General Eisenhower were elected president, we would find ourselves in a major war within six months. Ironically, however, having been thoroughly involved in war very much inclined President Eisenhower toward peace.
I became interested in politics in junior high school. I’m not sure just how this happened, but, in junior high, I encountered Ayn Rand; an AM radio program on XERF that, in retrospect, I would classify as promoting Christian nationalism; and an English teacher who was the rare New Orleans Republican. In high school, my best friend’s family were big supporters of Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. I bought the propaganda about “states’ rights” and became ever-so-slightly rebellious by considering myself a Republican in the Southern ocean of Democrats.
I left for college at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1964, excited at the prospect of discussing politics with fellow students. I was to be disappointed. Chicago was a very liberal, though not especially activist, campus, and it appeared that everyone considered Barry Goldwater a nut job and his candidacy a fool’s errand. No one seemed open to a contrary view on the matter, so political discussion was pointless. Nevertheless, I retained my Republican philosophy, but I didn’t have much of an opportunity to expound on it. I was a poll watcher for one election—I don’t remember which one—and the experience nurtured a certain cynicism regarding big-city machine politics.
Regret Number 1I signed on to Cap and Gown, the University of Chicago yearbook, as business manager. Eventually, I became editor-in-chief. I did so thinking that joining the yearbook staff was my ticket to breaking into the student power structure on campus. As it happened, there was no student power structure, and there was little interest in a college yearbook. The yearbook office was in Ida Noyes Hall, a quaint, uninviting building that served as a student center in an era when student recreation was not considered much of a priority.
I once found myself in Ida Noyes in the company of a group of students sitting on the floor talking. I assume they were discussing politics, possibly about students who had gone South to register black voters, but I really don’t remember. I didn’t know any of the students and wasn’t participating in the discussion. At some point, the group began singing “We Shall Overcome.” I was immediately overcome by a painful ambivalence. There was a strong sense of community and purpose in the room that I found attractive, but I was still a Republican who, although I had no dislike of blacks, also had no sympathy for the Civil Rights movement. Sadly, I didn’t participate in the singing and eventually walked away. I am saddened that I could not bring myself to join the group in song, and I am sad that, for much of the Civil Rights era, I was on the wrong side. (On the positive side, I have since sung “We Shall Overcome” at an NAACP event.)
Regret Number 2Studying physics at the University of Chicago left me little time for watching television or for keeping up with current events. When Dr. King was killed, however, everyone knew about it. My fraternity brothers were saddened by the shooting and concerned about immediate consequences. The university adjoined a black neighborhood, and rioting spilling over into the campus seemed a real possibility. I was largely oblivious both to the distress and apprehension of my housemates.
My concern was that, having been assassinated, Dr. King would become an instant martyr, thereby achieving recognition I felt he did not deserve. Unable to keep my politically-incorrect thoughts to myself, I wrote an essay expressing my disgust with this possibility and posted it publicly in the chapter house. Friends tried to convince me, though without success, that my actions were, at best, insensitive, particularly since one of the brothers was black.
In no way was the murder of Dr. King going to change my mind about the righteous of his causes, but, in retrospect, I should have at least kept my counsel to myself.
For any reader who does not know, although I went through college as a moderately strong conservative, at some point—curiously, I don’t know just when—I became what Facebook calls me, namely, “very liberal.” I think Richard Nixon may have had something to do with my transformation.
Regret Number 3After one term in graduate school, I enlisted in the U.S. Army, not out of a sense of patriotism but out of a sense of self-preservation. Graduate school draft deferments were being eliminated, and I wanted to minimize my chances of having to carry a rifle in the jungles of South Vietnam. Following an audition, I was able to enlist as an Army bandsman. After basic training, I was posted to Fort McPherson in Atlanta and, after that, to Fort Shafter in Honolulu. I considered myself a conscientious soldier who, despite the usual gripes of soldiering, was respectful of the chain of command. I was also grateful, of course, to be in Hawaii and not South Vietnam.
As a member of the 264th Army Band, I regularly spent time in rehearsals. playing concerts and military ceremonies, and marching in the occasional parade. Band members did have a fair amount of time off, however. One day, a couple of my fellow musicians and I decided to go on a hike. (Oahu has many hiking trails.) As I recall, the trail we decided to hike was on Fort Shafter, but I don’t recall much about it. What I do remember is that we were apparently missed—maybe we hadn’t shown up for dinner—and someone was sent to find us. That someone was an enlisted man who was not a member of the band and not someone we know. As we were coming off the trail, we saw him walking toward us. He said something that made clear why he was there and that he had then completed his mission. He did something that was unexpected, however; he saluted.
As you may know, in most circumstances, enlisted soldiers are obliged to salute officers. But we hikers were enlisted men and we didn’t require a salute. None of us—I know I didn’t—returned the salute. But to this day, I regret not having done so. The salute was clearly not the standard, obligatory show of respect; it was instead a sign of communal solidarity and perhaps an involuntary expression of relief. To have returned the gesture would have been to acknowledge the concern for our absence and the effort expended to find us. Also, a show of brotherhood.
Final ThoughtsWith some reflection, I can think of other embarrassing situations over the years that I handled badly—for example, not recognizing or acknowledging that a person thought he or she was doing something special for me. Well, as I said earlier, we all make mistakes, don’t we? We can strive to be better people though. Certainly, I like to think I am a more sensitive person now than I was in my college days.
Let me, therefore, conclude this little confessional with a quotation from George Bernard Shaw:
As long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it.