Nothing Like Sunshine: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination

Overview

Rabbi Ben Kamin has written a definitive personal expression about race, coming of age in the 1960s, a forbidden friendship, and his personal love for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a story that spans a four-decade search for a lost high school chum, a deep misunderstanding, and a coming to terms with an America painfully evolving from the blood of MLK to the promise of Barack Obama.
     The book is a remembrance of Kamin's life at Cincinnati's notorious...

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Nothing Like Sunshine: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination

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Overview

Rabbi Ben Kamin has written a definitive personal expression about race, coming of age in the 1960s, a forbidden friendship, and his personal love for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a story that spans a four-decade search for a lost high school chum, a deep misunderstanding, and a coming to terms with an America painfully evolving from the blood of MLK to the promise of Barack Obama.
     The book is a remembrance of Kamin's life at Cincinnati's notorious Woodward High School, a microcosm of the 1960s and of America itself, as well as detailing Kamin's search-for Clifton, for America, for the key to understanding what race relations really are in the United States. Simultaneously, it is the story of the emerging rabbi's search for the legacy of his spiritual mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., taking Kamin from Cincinnati to Cleveland to Memphis to New Orleans and other points, and constantly bringing him home to his friend Clifton and "the heaving hallways" of that high school.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870138829
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 2/24/2010
  • Pages: 148
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Ben Kamin is a nationally known clergyman, teacher, counselor, and author of eight books on human values, civil rights, and spirituality.

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Read an Excerpt

NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE

A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination
By Ben Kamin

MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Ben Kamin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-882-9


Chapter One

Room B4

CINCINNATI, OHIO | APRIL 5, 1968

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s body lay in the morgue of St. Joseph's Hospital in Memphis when I awoke in my bedroom, damp with sweat and worry. How far, I wondered, was the distance from Cincinnati to Memphis? Not far, I knew. Four hundred miles? Not so far. I was in the tenth grade, and slept uneasily with the images of corpses, guns, battles, and now a fallen preacher—although I was in the cozy sanctuary of my oak-shaded room with the little alcove for my desk that overlooked the quiet street. It was a reddish-brick house, Midwestern stock, with a narrow chimney—the dwelling solid and simple, introduced by a tiny railed stoop in front with three steps.

People had always touted my town, Cincinnati, as a Southern city, a would-be Atlanta, not at all like the starchy, flat dead-center Midwestern capital of Columbus, or the smoke-stacked, northeastern, urban-weary Cleveland. Not in "Cincy," with the twang that was so often heard in casual conversation in the corner "Pony Keg" mini-marts. There you could buy snow cones, the daily Cincinnati Enquirer, Hudepohl beer, five-cent Ibold cigars, and Reds baseball trading cards. The city was bordered by the muddy green waters of the Ohio. The heavy migrant Appalachian population weighed in along with the humidity, especially in the Carthage, Hartwell, and Western Hills sections—which also yielded Pete Rose, the ultimate native scion, who had more hits than any baseball player ever but was ultimately banished from the game for his gambling habits.

Cincinnati: I remember the seven-year cycle of cicada locusts that left their eerie skeletal remains staring at us young boys from the stricken trunks of birch trees. And the presence of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and its booze-and-women clubs, forbidden haunts of "boondocks noir," cheap cigarettes and whiskey, in Newport and Covington and Erlanger—just across the steaming river from our grayish downtown and its Dixie Terminal Building. Yet I had a sense of place—obstinately patriotic, quite distinct—and a consciousness, that morning of April 5, 1968, of how the Ohio River naturally blended into the Mississippi, linking my civic coordinates to Memphis and my heart to the American story.

So I felt a certain proximity to what had happened the night before at the Lorraine Motel and wanted to put my head in my hands and just moan. But I trembled instead, cold flashes attacking my spine, and the image of the silenced preacher prone in his blood on the Lorraine walkway glaring in my eyes. Was I being selfish, at fifteen years of age, to feel cheated that I had never met Dr. King? Or was I just being reverent? I did not know which, although I did know that I was frightened.

I remembered when President John F. Kennedy was slain, less than five years earlier. The tiny Hebrew day school I then attended suddenly sent us home just before two o'clock—exactly when we would have concluded our day with the weekly all-classes welcoming of Sabbath. There would be no plastic mini-cups of grape juice, thin challah slices, lit candles, and sung blessings that Friday afternoon. I wouldn't have the opportunity to swoon over my willowy fellow sixth grader, Linda Gerstle, outside of the confined classroom, and in the cold sunshine of our modest playground behind the brown brick building. That was an unseasonably pleasant day, November 22, 1963. I scanned the front entranceway on Summit Road, and there was my mother in her gray Dodge Lancer with the push-button transmission. The breeze picked up and seemed to start howling and the skies turned dark as I sat in the seat next to her and realized that she was sobbing. The radio was not tuned for me to "Top 40" WSAI/1360 AM for the Crystals and Dionne Warwick. No, it was Clear Channel WLW 700, the Nation's Station, where there was news piped in from NBC spoken by hushed, urgent-sounding men about confusion and blood and crushed flowers and a young widow in Dallas, Texas.

We made our way, as we did every Friday afternoon, to pick up a twisted challah at the Avon Bakery on Reading Road. There, the narrow-waisted, kindly older ladies, clad in pink service dresses, were working dutifully and silently behind the counter, running poppy seed and regular loaves through the single slicing machine, handing over waxy bags to their customers while openly crying—as the radio on the shelf above the fruit pastry blasted the shocking dispatches from Dallas and Washington. Next to us stood Dr. Glanzberg, the sinewy orthodontist who had survived Treblinka and Dachau only eighteen years earlier, who worked on my braces while vigorously humming along with the Puccini operas that he piped into the office via WGUC-FM. Now he held onto his rye bread as if someone terrible was coming back again to take it away from him. He smiled at me in a crooked, forced way, and I saw trepidation in his eyes that told me something had been shaken from its foundations.

That was the beginning of everything as we came to know the 1960s, and it's hard to remember anything clearly before November 22, 1963. A wispy, eerie man named Lee Harvey Oswald, ex-Marine, alleged commie, Russian expatriate, came through the cathode ray of the black-and-white television set with the pronged antennae and click-click channel setter. We had real demons to fear and young men to bury, starting with the chestnut-haired president and hemorrhaging into thousands and thousands of peach-fuzzed soldiers who began to die for us in the jungles and rice paddies and fires of Vietnam. Broadcast live on my luckless living room Zenith, a stocky TV-gangster look-alike named Jack Ruby thrust himself out of the grainy crowd in the Dallas police garage and fired a pistol into the sweater of Lee Harvey Oswald that very Sunday afternoon, November 24, 1963. Suddenly, the government and policemen were no longer sacrosanct as we assumed they were, and nothing seemed as safe as we took for granted it would be. There was now "A Threat" out there. Violent death was abruptly an unwelcome companion in our thoughts. There was a new vulnerability; some (including me) thought of fleeing to Canada to avoid the inexplicable war. Race riots scorched everything the next several summers from Newark to Watts. Japanese cars and lavish bar mitzvah parties and Afros and bell-bottoms and condoms came through like the tide, and even Linda Gerstle went on to her life, and our innocent little crush upon each other was as distant and ethereal as the morning stars disappearing into the blazing light of a postmodernity that everyone feted but none of us really, truly welcomed.

* * *

April 5, 1968: It was Chet Huntley we watched the night before on NBC, breaking into the programming and announcing that "Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis." I immediately thought of Clifton Fleetwood, my friend at school since we had arrived there together, from different places, tenth months after the assassination of President Kennedy. And I thought of Clifton now, as the morning came to reveal the charred and smoking landscape of so many American cities. I had wanted to call Clifton the night before, in the wake of the terrible news, and certainly after the breathless reporters on NBC, CBS, and ABC began their dispatches about the rioting in Washington, DC, and elsewhere that went on all through the night. I had wanted to call Clifton, but realized, with a bit of shame, that I did not have his telephone number and had never actually phoned him since we first met in seventh grade three years previously. We played in the Woodward High School Marching Band together, ate lunch together from time to time at the edge of the socially segregated cafeteria on the top floor of the high school, ran through the halls of the cavernous building in mischief and glee, and ritualistically smoked Marlboro cigarettes behind toilet stalls and in the back of the basement band hall, Room B4. We skipped chemistry class together once a week or so and defiantly walked across the heavily trafficked Reading Road and into Swifton Shopping Center, the nation's first such shopping plaza, and gobbled corn dogs and root beer at the soda fountain of G. C. Murphy and Co. five-and-ten store. But I didn't have Clifton's telephone number, had only a vague idea of where he lived, assuming it was in the formerly Jewish and now predominantly black section of town called Avondale. This was where synagogues had been converted into Baptist churches, and former boutiques were now Aamco Transmission centers—in which grease-stained black men calibrated engine timing on Pontiacs and Studebakers and installed PCV valves. They balanced tires for middle-level white managers who locked their car doors promptly upon heading home to the Norwood, Bond Hill, and Kenwood sections of town. Wringing my hands, imagining Dr. King's almond eyes staring lifelessly up to the sky from the Lorraine balcony, I realized that my comradeship with Clifton Fleetwood was a daytime, Monday–Friday event, and included none of the secrets and the terrors that constitute a true friendship.

Clifton Fleetwood ("a Cadillac among men," he would describe himself) had been my indomitable crony from the second month of seventh grade, fall of 1964. I was still cowering in the halls in this urban behemoth of a high school, with grades seven through twelve, a great and strange multicultural patchwork of 3,600 students, and a labyrinth of hallways and crevices and orifices that—I learned quickly and brutally—were the stomping grounds of wandering thieves and thugs who, like bats, pounced upon innocent little seventh graders who had just matriculated from a cozy Hebrew day school of fifty-five monolithic tenderfoots. A grown man, an eleventh grader, with a steel-wool dark beard to frame his fierce, angry ebony face stood over me once while I lamely turned the combination of my locker. When I wheeled around, he promptly punched me in the throat and took off , along with his two chortling escorts. Why was I then surprised the next afternoon when I discovered the locker open, empty, ransacked, and filled with urine?

I had just completed two terms as president of the Yavneh Day School Junior Congregation and was not quite ready for this kind of cultural abrasion. My parents, normally militant and generally infallible, seemed helpless to come up with what to do, and my scoutmaster at Troop 265 of the Jewish Community Center could only tell me to be strong and show courage. "But don't even try to report it," he added. "They all look the same."

They didn't, not to me. Especially Clifton. I actually don't remember the exact circumstances of our meeting and talking for the first time, but I saw him from the beginning, amongst the drums and cymbals, in the back section of the octagonal Band Room adjacent to the band teacher's cramped office. Clifton, black, brash, skinny, and very musical, would eventually become the drum major of our Bulldogs Marching Band, with blue and white colors and black and white faces. Besides attempting to play the B-flat clarinet, I became the assistant drum major in due time, thanks largely to Clifton's proactive stance with the Southern-born-and-bred Mr. Raleigh Taylor. Taylor was the courtly, dark-haired director who wanted to be down there with us as much as he wanted to drink ink. Taylor, with deep-set blue eyes, his inner life still unrealized, actually a kindhearted man, sought the real world of concert music, and he certainly made it clear to us howling rhythm-assassins that he had only come to Cincinnati from Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia, to transition from the army, and that he wanted to be around a higher caliber of composition. That he was a man with a hungry soul was confirmed one day in our eighth-grade year when Clifton (of course) started the 1:40 p.m. class off by hushing us all and then ceremoniously swinging the door of Mr. Taylor's office wide open (with his own set of keys, naturally), revealing the conductor in deep occupation with the rod-thin and leggy Miss Armstrong, junior high English teacher and intermittent companion of our young, single, and noble leader.

"My, God, Mr. Taylor!" yelled Clifton Fleetwood, as every wind, brass, string, and percussion instrument exploded gleefully, a sarcastic cacophony there in the poorly ventilated chamber known as Room B4. The moment of triumphant anarchy, a typhoon of clapping and laughter, was blunted by Mr. Taylor's sweeping recovery from the exposure. Standing up, gracefully buttoning his dark blazer, his lips quivering, throwing his thick hair back with his palms, gently directing the English teacher aside within the narrow space between his desk and the cubicle wall, the maestro marched to the doorway, glared at Clifton, and proclaimed:

"You all are so dumb that you wouldn't even comprehend. Clifton, see me after school."

But Clifton and Raleigh Taylor actually had a polite if tragic understanding, something resembling a reenacted antebellum relationship that the adult pursued without intended malice and the youngster acceded to with a political and ingrained social instinct. The fact that Raleigh Taylor was anything but an elitist would be proven over the next several decades while he taught music to myriad youngsters of all ages and backgrounds in the less-hectic confines of Harford County's public schools in Maryland. He packed his cherished trombone and was gone from the turbulent halls of Woodward High School by 1969.

But while there, the director liked my friend Clifton's good-natured assertiveness and his accomplished administrative skills. The truth is that Clifton ran the band while Taylor pined for his next opportunity to sub in the Cincinnati Symphony, or jam in one of the local jazz groups that drew him in. The results were that we actually had our treble and clef sheets, drum sticks, and reeds, and we gave off a decent sound on the open-air football field of our beloved Bulldogs while creating a formation to the beat of "A pretty girl is like a melody ..."

Mr. Taylor never had to worry about launching the weekly Friday-morning pep-band marches around the school that began at 7:00 a.m. While the teacher sipped on coffee and ate Dunkin' Donuts from Swifton Center, Clifton was already there, having taken an even earlier city bus than usual from his stop, several miles south on Reading Road. He was clockwork in his band manifestation, and he set us up, clipping small bits of sheet music with nimble, long fingers into the slots above this one's trumpet and that one's saxophone and—on my happiest days—turning over his big bass drum to me while he led the way, animated, proud, and truly talented. Upon our return from the heady march and rally on behalf of our perennial Public High School League (PHSL) champions, who were in those days spearheaded by the future Michigan star and Rose Bowl standout Eddie Shuttlesworth (who played trombone for Clifton when football wasn't in season), we feasted upon a generous spread of the doughnuts quietly left behind by Raleigh Taylor. Dutifully, Clifton cleaned up the sugary, flaky crumbs after us, sponged the milk and coffee stains, discarded the teacher's morning Enquirer in the trash bin, and then locked the office with the same key that he used to intermittently dismay the doe-eyed Mr. Taylor. No, it was clear to me that the lily-white Taylor and the urban-black Fleetwood found common ground somewhere upon the landscape of high school practicalities and Southern sensibilities. If, for example, Clifton knew what the deal really was between the bandleader and the English teacher, he never divulged anything. And even when Clifton tested Mr. Taylor's temper on a particularly dreary afternoon, the teacher never delivered the ultimate punch of suspension or disenfranchisement upon his young protégé. Yes, even after the following exchange, on an afternoon when Taylor was trying to inspire us to successfully play Billy May's arrangement of "Serenade in Blue," Clifton survived.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from NOTHING LIKE SUNSHINE by Ben Kamin Copyright © 2010 by Ben Kamin. Excerpted by permission of MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

1 Room B4....................3
2 The Ville, New Orleans, and Prayer Feathers....................21
3 Room 306....................35
4 Memphis Voices....................45
5 "What kind of country was that?"....................63
6 "I was protecting you, man"....................83
7 "Thank God we ain't what we was"....................101
AFTERWORD Lightning, Forty Years Later....................127
Bibliography....................133
Acknowledgments....................137
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