Opinion: Musings on the Coast

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The Day My Father Became a Hero

This is a redo of a column originally run in the Indy five years ago. In light of MLK Day and our country’s recent racial turmoil, I thought it appropriate to re-write this column. It is about the day my father took a stand on racism and became a hero.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray. My father’s name was James David Ray. The last name is common. There are a lot of Rays.

About a week after MLK’s assassination, I visited my family from college and my father, in a bonding experience, took me to the weekly luncheon of the Corona del Mar Kiwanis Club. It was in the back room of a local restaurant. The attendees were about 40 local small businessmen who mostly joked around.

We were late and by the time we arrived, the men were seated in a big square arrangement and were ebullient about Dr. King’s death. One stood and even toasted my father for having a name so similar to the assassin. Another said something like, hey, it took a guy name James Ray to kill that Negro, and the men stood and applauded.

This is not an exaggeration. It really happened.

My father grew up in Republican Kansas in an era when a few Civil War veterans, though ancient, still were alive. The Republican Party was Lincoln’s creation, the party of the Emancipation Proclamation, and if you were a Republican, you were a “liberal.”

My father’s family went broke in the Depression and he rode the freights west to get a job. He was a hobo. Even though he was big and strong, beefy, not a man you would want to fight, he knew what it was to be poor and hungry.

At the Kiwanis Club meeting, I sat down timidly, almost frozen, but the comments and applause stopped my father in his tracks. He did not sit down. He stood there, rock still, but with his whole demeanor suddenly stark and intense as he swiveled his head, staring, and then hung his head, shaking it side to side. I was next to him. I saw it. He looked up again and moved his eyes from one member to the next. He did it deliberately. He said nothing. His head moved in a slow arc. I think he locked onto the eyes of everyone in the room.

As if by some agreement, the men sat. It was slow and uncoordinated. They moved their chairs as soundlessly as they could. The whole room was silent. Even the Latino waiters stopped, transfixed by this man acting that way in a then thoroughly racist Newport Beach

My father remained standing until everyone found his seat. He still was big and burly with a huge chest. He swiveled his head around the room as everyone sat.

He was magnificent.

Eventually, the period passed and the club got around to its usual business and gossip. I sat beside my father and said nothing. My father never said anything either. Ever. He never mentioned the incident. None of his kids know of it except me. 

Michael grew up in Corona del Mar, now lives in Laguna Beach, and a co-founder of The Orange County School of the Arts and The Discovery Cube.

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