SAVE ME JOE LOUIS

This is part book review and part memoir. Please comment nicely!

When I was about sixteen I read a book called Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King. The book was about the Civil Rights movement in America. Dr. King described how to use nonviolent protest to challenge injustice and change society for the better. The stories about the protests were inspiring, but the only part I really related to was a story about an execution.

It seems there was this black teenager who was found guilty of some crime and sentenced to death. As an experiment the prison officials put a microphone in the gas chamber so they could actually hear the prisoner dying. The last thing they heard him say, over and over, was "save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis."

Dr. King explained that this story was a way of showing how powerless black people felt in America. This was a boy who died alone, unable to call for help. All he could do was daydream about Joe Louis coming to save him. "Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was the most powerful fighter in the world."

Now it's interesting that there are all kinds of black people in the book, but the only one I identified with was a teenage criminal who wasn't even part of the Civil Rights movement. That black boy in the gas chamber was just like me, completely powerless. He wasn't one of the people marching and protesting. He was dying and there was nothing he could do about it, except to call on a powerful, older man who was never going to answer him.

That's exactly how I felt when I was sixteen. Every night I had to lie in bed and listen to my father coughing in the next room. He was very sick. But he didn't care. Cigarettes were killing him, but he refused to quit. Every night I listened and I felt powerless.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I could have learned from Martin Luther King. If I could have told someone at school about how I was feeling. I imagine standing up in the middle of class and saying that I couldn't take the next test, or any test ever again, until my father agreed to quit. I imagine the other kids cheering, or laughing, or just staring at me and wondering why I was such a loser. And then I see myself sitting down again and going back to work.

No matter how sick my father got, I never stopped working hard. And my father never stopped smoking. Every night the hate grew stronger, and the shame. There was no way out.

Save me Joe Louis!