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Shocked by young racism in a coffeehouse conversation

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As I sat at my laptop in a neighborhood Starbucks, working (ironically) on a screenplay about Martin Luther King Jr. and his mysterious Jewish advocate Stanley Levison, the young man tapped on a hardback I had placed next to me. It was Bruce Watson’s painfully candid and richly researched Freedom Summer—the hallmark account of the courageous and gruesome 1964 campaign by Northern students (mostly white) and Southern residents (mostly black) to break Mississippi’s ancestral and draconian and deadly prohibition against black folks gaining access to the ballot box.

A suburban bigot stirring a latte.

The so-called “Freedom Summer” betrayed the medieval violence, the cosmic racism, and the bloodlust-vehemence with which Mississippi cops (read: Klansmen), mayors, housewives, businesspeople, and even white youngsters would maim, burn, lynch, and blow away any “negra” or sympathetic white who dared to even question the Nazi-like oligarch of segregation that prevailed, from Jackson to Biloxi to Hattiesburg.

The horrific icon of that summer remains the uncommonly brutal, cold-blooded nighttime highway ambush of three young freedom workers, one black and two Jewish—found in shallow graves a few days later near Philadelphia, Miss.

At Starbucks, the fellow who intruded with his tap and his immediate diatribe about “progressive hypocrisy” was no more than 25, white, with unkempt curly hair, wild eyes, and undeniable cognitive focus. (His lack of good manners is worth noting but is not the issue—I have often enjoyed the spontaneous bursts of friendly conversations with strangers that are a warm staple of the coffee house culture). But this guy, within minutes of a rapid-fire, uncontrollable, concentrated, and unwelcome screed, let me know that he has an earned doctorate in technology, is Jewish (I have no idea why he included this as I do not wear or parade any trademark Jewish clothing or items), and that Freedom Summer was a “catastrophe for this country.”

Giving this kid the benefit of the doubt, I at first assumed that he meant “catastrophe” in the sense of the inherent tragedy of Mississippi circa 1964 in the first place. I was quickly relieved of that illusion and then found myself trapped by an in-your-face filibuster of despicable and heartbreaking proportions.

“I refuse to refer to Martin Luther King as a ‘Doctor.’ I earned my doctorate in technology. King plagiarized his.” This is an old blood-libel that simmers among the deceits that include the claim that Dr. King (who earned a Ph.D. in Systemic Theology from Boston University at the age of 26) was a Communist.

This young man in my face, a suburban bigot stirring a latte, carried on about “the progressives” who “have no data” to prove that the granting of civil liberties and voting rights to minorities has done anything “but to bring down this nation.”

I looked at him and assured him that his own freedom to speak prevented me from shutting him up. I then asked him to leave me be, so that I could continue my work. He got the message and left—not before again tapping my copy of Freedom Summer and declaring: “We are going to defeat these people!”

Oh no, we’re not, dude. We will walk with them; they are America's Hebrews.

www.benkamin.com

See my newest book, 'DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers'

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