City Parks I: I Remember Messrs. Fields and Martin

Many of us have a city park where we find a microcosm of our lives. Mine is Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, and since we’ve been told that our dog Jiggs is overweight, we’ve been taking him for longer walks. The Park is the place he seems to like the best, even over the off-leash dog park nearby.

Today it is raining hard, but Cheryl and I take Jiggs out anyway, our umbrellas held aloft, Jiggs in his new harness from Walmart ($9.99), a cross between a horse saddle and a dog leash. The park is nearly empty: a lone (and dedicated) runner, hat-less running along the wood chip path, some work crews. We head along the north side, Jiggs zig-zagging as he does, living in dog time, sniffing the air.

Liberty Park is one of those old-styled city parks. It features a good-sized duck pond east of the Tracy Aviary where flamingos cavort with peacocks and they have the bird-of-prey show. There is a Ferris Wheel and merry-go-round, some kiddie rides, a concessions stand, horseshoe throw, tennis courts, swimming pool. But its greatest feature, in my opinion, is the 50 or so Fremont Cottonwoods that run along the central walkway past the Chase Mansion and Mill, a residence once of Brigham Young. The trees are gloriously high–50 feet each–and, without many leaves this time of year, pruned so that their huge upper branches look like brachia–awkward and knobbed, but obviously functional. In the summer and fall the cotton wisps fill the air: a kind of natural doppelganger to the “greatest snow on earth” in this former host of the Winter Olympic Games.

On the northwest corner of the park, about twenty feet in from 5th East Street, and not far from today’s running path is a marker set flush with the ground in a concrete bed. The marker is small, maybe six by ten inches, and probably brass or copper–now oxidized into a green-brown hue. It memorializes the murder of two young black men in August 1980. Theodore T. Fields, Jr. and David L. Martin were young, 18 and 19, I believe, and considered promising and upstanding. But the only thing that mattered to the extremist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, was that they were running along the Liberty Park jogging path with two white women. Franklin, who had already shot and killed at least five others in states as far east as Virgina had a problem with interracial…anything. These two young men were the last two of his victims. He was arrested shortly afterward, convicted and now sits on death row in a Missouri prison.

I remember hearing about the deaths of these two young men. I was their age at the time and living south of Salt Lake. If I remember correctly, the cold-blooded murders raised the specter of institutional racism in Utah, a racism that that had been justified my entire life by religion. Only two years earlier had the policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibiting blacks from the Mormon priesthood been lifted in a historic “revelation” from the current prophet and president. But rumors of lingering racism in a people steeped in institutional racism similar, though not identical, to many American southerners, persisted. The press jumped on it: blacks shot in broad daylight in a Salt Lake City park. And I remember being deeply ashamed of what many Mormons had been deeply ashamed of for over 100 years. That we were bigots, intolerant of difference, racists.

Even when I stumbled on this plaque in Liberty Park today, I remembered the incident as having implicated my community, the religion of my childhood, my family–me. As I read up on the incident after my return home, I realized that I was wrong. I suggest that today I implicated myself in the perpetuation of stereotyping my own people as stubborn racists who, even when our own modern prophet lifted a ban based on skin color, still persisted in wrong-headed, sinful ways.

I am sorry for that. But I am also reminded of how pernicious and clinging racism can be–even when we all say the right things. For example, no one can tell me that much of the animosity towards President Barack Obama isn’t rooted in good old-fashioned American racism. Even before Obama did anything, before he represented any policy, he was being viciously vilified by many talk show hosts and their followers. The GOP shamefully played into this sentiment, playing to the bigots by practicing purely obstructionist politics. And yet, to announce as much– that racism played a role in the fierce animosity toward our first black president–wasn’t and isn’t really still available to us who see it, feel it, experience it in our public discourse.

So we don’t announce it. We watch with horror as tea party folks leverage their legitimate concerns about big government with hate speech. (One has to wonder where the hell these people were when George W. Bush was spending us into oblivion, eroding our constitutional and civil rights and launching unjust wars. But that is for another blog, I suppose.)

To “play the race card,” as right-wing extremists call it, is to diminish any hope for a conversation that leads to understanding and policies that benefit America and the American people. So we don’t. But still, I believe that racism is the canker of the anger that floods the plethora of right-wing talk shows like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter.

I thought about that today as I looked at that plaque honoring two young black kids shot dead at Liberty Park in 1980. I wondered about my own assumptions, my own prejudices against my own conservative community, and I realize now that despite how I jumped to unfair conclusions that that doesn’t mitigate how racism animates in subtle ways how we think and how we talk and how we act towards people who are different from us.

In many ways racism is THE American conversation. It’s our destiny. Even while Americans celebrate their first African-American president, as many of us now are with Barack Obama, racism will continue to poison our ranks and undermine our national integrity. We can’t rid ourselves of it, it would seem; we can only manage it continually. Or try to anyway.

Now when I walk Jiggs along the western side of Liberty Park, I will think of that. How quick I was to assume certain things, under-girded as they are by my own fierce self righteousness, but still aware of how there is no winning move when it comes to racism in the country I love. Perhaps this is our penance, and perhaps there is an opportunity in it that we can’t see…yet.

Copyright, David G. Pace, 2010