Haskell Watches Martin Luther King Jr. on the David Suskind Show
(November 1966 — My social studies teacher asked us to write about an historical event that had an impact on us. I chose the interview Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on The David Suskind Show, June 9,1963, and the subsequent adventure my mother and I had on Cape May a few weeks later.)
It was sweltering in New York, and we had no air conditioning in our apartment.
When Mom received a last minute invitation to stay at her client’s beach mansion in Cape May for the July 4th long holiday weekend, I said, “What are we waiting for?”
Mom even rented a Buick Riviera, and loaded the trunk with too much luggage, as if we were staying for a week – not two days. As we made our way down the Garden State Parkway, however, she began lecturing me about what I could say and what I could not.
“Be respectful of other people’s opinions, all right? I know you spent a lot of time writing that essay on Martin Luther King Jr. My suggestion? Don’t talk about it.”
“Mr. Lederman is a client of mine, and not everyone feels the same way about current political issues as you do.” She paused and tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, as she thought about what she was about to say to me.
“Integration is very controversial, Haskella, and not everyone is as open-minded about it as you and me. Let’s just say, for argument sake, that Mr. Lederman may have a decidedly different point of view, and I don’t want any bad feelings. It’s important for us to remember what Anne Frank says. ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’”
“Is Mr. Lederman a Nazi?”
“Haskell? Don’t be snarky. I’m just saying people can be nice, and worth knowing, even if you disagree with their politics.”
“Is he a Klansman?”
“Stop it. I think he works for the FBI.”
“Oh, this should be interesting.”
“I’m going to throw out some topics you can talk about. All right? King is not one of them. Talk about The Pan American Games. How’s that sound?”
“I have no idea what that is.”
“Then stick to what you love best: movies and musicals. For example, Maurice Chevalier. He has a new one-man show on Broadway, and I know Rod has tickets to see him.”
“He’s also up for a role playing a serial killer in a new TV show.”
“You see, that would be an appropriate subject to talk about. A beloved singer branching out into new, unchartered territory.”
Three hours after we left Manhattan, we pulled up in front of this magnificent Victorian mansion on the beach. A large, middle-aged, bald guy with a slight paunch stood waving at us. His bathrobe barely covered his shirtless, hairy body and a hideous pair of Hawaiian swim trunks, featuring monkeys and coconuts.
“Welcome, Mere!” I had never heard anyone reduce Mom’s name to a syllable. “So glad you could make it – and this must be your son. How are you, sport?”
He stuck out his large paw and squeezed my hand until it hurt. This guy was really hairy.
“Dinner’s at 8:00 p.m. Casual, Mere, casual. I’m barbecuing halibut and steak. We have several friends joining us. A few guys from the Department. Relax. Take a swim. Maybe check out the beach, huh? You surf, young man?”
I don’t even know how to swim. Mom always believed “ocean + Haskell = shark meat.
I decided I would remain silent at dinner. Be a good boy. It wasn’t difficult since I was the only kid among a sea of old FBI agents and their old wives. Everyone had grey hair, except my mom, who was a blonde today.
At one point, though, my mom made the mistake of sharing with the fellow sitting next to her that I was in eighth grade, and I had written a very good essay worthy of being submitted to a contest.
“Oh, so what is your essay about, young man?” The man asked, setting his knife down on his plate.
A hush came over the room – and all eyes were on me.
“It’s on the David Suskind interview with Martin Luther King Jr. You know, from a few weeks ago? My point in the essay is that King believes it’s time to make a change. The civil war ended a hundred years ago, but you’d hardly know it. I wrote that Dr. King spoke so eloquently and patiently about our moral obligation to make these changes, that we must do something immediately before it’s too late.”
“Before what’s too late?” Lederman asked, leaning forward in his chair.
I have always wanted to use this sentence: You could hear a pin drop.
“Something has to happen before nonviolence turns to violence,” I spoke cautiously, looking around the table as I continued. “You see, he’s very critical of Kennedy’s sluggishness to get a civil rights bill passed, and he’s especially disgusted with how long it’s taking to integrate the schools. King’s fear is that if we keep procrastinating, the country will grow angrier and angrier and….”
I felt my mother kick me hard under the table, but that didn’t stop me.
“King is insistent, and rightfully so, that the University of Alabama should admit Negroes. Do it now, not a year or ten years from now.”
Lederman let out a deep sigh as he shook his head. “I don’t think the federal government should interfere with the policies of a university. Alabama can decide those things on its own.”
“Not if the president of the university is a morally corrupt racist jerk with no
ability to see beyond his own prejudice!”
My mom now stood up and reached over to grab my hand. “We are going for
a little stroll. I am so sorry about this.” She smiled weakly.
And with that, Mom clamped her hands around my waist and led me outside to the sidewalk. A half-hour later we were sitting in the Buick, heading home.
“What is wrong with you?”
I didn’t answer her.
“You’re thirteen, and you can’t speak to adults that way. I wouldn’t be surprised
if Mr. Lederman reports you to Mr. Hoover and creates an FBI file with your name on it."
“The Haskell files. I’d like to see that.”
“You can joke, but your words have consequences. Frankly, you sounded like you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I bit my lip. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I hated it when I made my mom angry. It
tore the insides of me apart. Despite everything, I loved her very much, and I know she works incredibly hard to make it possible for me to attend a private school and work with a prestigious acting coach.
Did I really sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about?
“What now?” She snapped.
I figured I was better off saying nothing. I truly believed in what I said at
Lederman’s house. I wasn’t being rude or naive. I not only agreed with everything King said, I wanted to join him when he marched in Washington.
Even if Mom gives me a hard time, I’ll tell her I’ve read King’s Stride Toward
Freedom and the letter he wrote in prison — written just months before he gave
I’ll tell her I support King’s ideas, and most importantly, I do what Mr.
Varnish suggests we all do: “Act as if what you do makes a difference.”