I spent the years 1966-1971 in New Orleans, attending graduate school at Tulane University and organizing the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter there. It was the height of the movement against the Vietnam War. We had a city-wide chapter of SDS comprised mostly of non-students called Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), which published a monthly newsletter called The Midnight Special.
All kinds of magazines and newsletters arrived in our MDS mailbox from abroad – China, Cuba, the Soviet Bloc countries, and from various fraternal movements. Even though the U.S. was bombing the smithereens out of Vietnam, it was not an officially declared war, so I suppose that’s why mail continued to come from there as well.
One time a pamphlet from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam came through, which was Ho Chi Minh’s memoir of his early political education and activism when Indochina was still a French colony. As a young man Ho served in the merchant marine and traveled the world. He wrote that around 1919 his ship stopped in New Orleans, and he noticed from the local morning newspaper (the States-Item, perhaps?) that later that afternoon there would be a lynching of a Black man in a public square, to which everyone was invited. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, it might have been one thing if the paper had reported an event that had occurred the previous day, but to announce it in advance and basically say, “Y’all come on down!” was simply not credible to me,
Being right there in New Orleans, I had the resources readily accessible to prove him wrong. I hopped on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar down to the main library where I could look at a microfiche of the newspaper of the date Ho had cited.
Damned if he wasn’t perfectly right, date and all! Clearly he had clipped this article and kept it among his papers as reference for a future memoir that he might compose some day. He stated exactly what the newspaper said. I was shocked, and it offered me a powerful lesson in the history of our country reading about it approximately 50 years later. How recent these events! How deeply seared in living human memory!
Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, while the war was still in progress, although the end of it in 1975, prolonged mercilessly though it was, could already be seen. The announcement of his death reminded me that he had taught me something sobering and disturbing about my own country. I imagined I might well be walking the streets of New Orleans with people who could have witnessed that lynching half a century before. It gave me further resolve to continue doing all I could to bring those sorry chapters to a close.
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