In 1930, when my father was an eight-year-old kid in Chicago, he asked his older brother why people were outside in the cold snow waiting in a long line. His brother Harold said, “It’s a bread line. They don’t have anything to eat. They’re hoping for bread.”
My father ran to his mother’s bedroom and grabbed my grandmother’s diamond brooch, ran downstairs, and gave it to a man in the bread line.
Later, as the Depression rolled on, my grandfather lost everything. So Gil Palast was a failure early. Stayed a failure.
He ended up in the furniture business, in a store in the barrio in Los Angeles, selling pure crap on layaway to Mexicans; then later on, he sold fancier crap to fancier people in Beverly Hills and he hated furniture, and hated the undeserving pricks and their trophy wives who bought it.
Sometimes, one night can change your life. When I was thirteen, I remember my dad sitting on the carpet in the living room of our dull tract house, killing Saturday evening, as usual, hunting the radio for some Sinatra.
He called me over and said, “I want you to listen to this.” At the left side of the radio dial, he’d stumbled on an odd radio station, “KPFK Pacifica.”
It was 1965 and we listened to Martin Luther King speaking about the three kinds of love as defined by the Greek philosophers. King’s philosophy lesson was being given in a church surrounded by angry white men who had changed their white sheets for police uniforms and were prepared to burn down the church with King and his congregation inside. It would not be the first church to be burned.
King prepared to march, and prepared to be beaten while marching, from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery.
My father told me, “You’ll do that.” He told me that, when I grew up, I’d go down South, I’d join the Freedom Riders, become a lawyer for King, a knight for justice in an unjust world.
But why didn’t he go himself? Why didn’t he join the march right then, join the fight? I know: kids, responsibility, furniture. Other men, giants like King, marched into history, challenging the world’s dragons, to slay them or be slain. Furniture didn’t march. It sat there. It was sat upon. And the rich farted into the mattresses he sold them. The furniture store was locked from the inside by a poisonous fear of leaving life to chance.
So he put the burden of his quest on me. How screwed up is that? How staggeringly cruel.
In 2005, on the fortieth anniversary of the Selma march, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a big family-style dinner in Birmingham, Alabama, for the surviving legends of the Civil Rights movement. I couldn’t resist going down to report on it. I got a seat at the back.
At the end of his solemn speech, Martin Luther King III, son of the martyr, said, “I’d like to acknowledge the presence of a heroic young man among us. I took Greg Palast’s book to my father’s grave and showed him, and I know my dad was pleased. Greg, please rise.” Then the giants around me stood up, and I accepted with grace a standing ovation from those more deserving than me.
To have such kind words from King’s son at the Selma anniversary has doubtless been the greatest honor of my career.
I never told my dad.
2010: By the time I got to the hospital, Dad could only move his head, rasp a few words. But he left no doubt he was happy that I had made it in to see him one last time, happier that I don’t sell furniture.
It was my mother’s birthday, her eighty-ninth. My dad told us to get out of the hospital and have a blow-out of a party. We did. It was a hell of a celebration.
My mom had a gusher of stories to tell the crowd at the deli. I remember this one. Just a few weeks earlier, my parents had decided to have a nice day out. Mom needs oxygen to breathe, and my father, after his stroke, used a walker with wheels. Mom dressed up in her goofy red, white, and blue patriotic garb, strapped on a canister of oxygen, and my father, limping a few inches at a time, made it to the local grocery store – to join a union picket line.
He was late, he was slow. But he was marching.
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Greg Palast is the author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Vultures’ Picnic from which this is excerpted. Palast’s writings on racially-biased vote suppression tactics received last month’s Sidney Hillman award for investigative reporting.
Support Palast’s renewed investigation into the return of Jim Crow voting tactics. Or make a tax deductible donation to the Palast Investigative Fund and receive a signed copy of Vultures’ Picnic or The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
Palast is a Puffin Foundation Fellow for Investigative Reporting.