The death of dreams

Sam Smith – I’ve been watching a CNN series on the Kennedys and it brought back memories of how early in my life I learned not to have too many dreams.

When I was 26, I was operations officer on a Coast Guard cutter out of Bristol, Rhode Island. We had just come back from taking a 40 foot patrol boat down to the Kennedy estate in Florida. I was bringing the ship into the dock

We weren’t more than a hundred feet off when a crew member came out on the deck below and called up to the bridge, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” I thought: what a stupid thing to say. I edged the ship up gently to the pier, got the lines properly secured and went below. Only then did I realize that it was true. Despite days away from homeport, no one left the ship for three hours as we huddled around the mess deck television.

Then, when I was 30, on the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street in Washington with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor’s house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted cops. Within 24 hours the city erupted into riots including my neighborhood east of Capitol Hill.

I was backing Gene McCarthy for president at the time, but something unusual happened. The Kennedy people realized that in heavily pro-Humphrey DC if they were going to win convention delegates and the local party committee they’d have to work out some compromise with the McCarthites.

And so one month after King’s death, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats backing two difference candidates was elected  On March 31, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress had held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons — a community organizer, a minister, a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself — were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthites from around the city. And we won.

Said the Washington Star: “They are likely to be more militant, more aggressive and more insistent on direct participation in local affairs. What this bodes for the community remains to be seen.”

With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start. One month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. On June 7, I wrote:

The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed. It had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. And it had watched Robert Kennedy die. . . .The central point of these tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively — without waiting for someone else to do it for us — are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world. Then, perhaps, we can become young again.

The dreams we had held so strongly were dead. It was probably around then that I learned that dreams were fulfilled not by heroes but by a people who share them and do something about it.

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