Phil Friedman

5 years ago · 5 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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The Day I Almost Died

The Day I Almost Diedsate + Crt




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Preface:  This story is not directly about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And while I've told this story privately several times through the years, I've never before written an article about it. Numerous friends and acquaintances have told me that I should, and a few have even suggested I should publish it one year on the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination. I've never done so, because I've always felt to do so might constitute a form of opportunism, reminiscent of that which I generally deplore in regard to eulogies penned for deceased celebrities.

However, recently, in an installment of our joint column "He Said He Said", fellow writer Jim Murray and I examined the issue of writers publishing eulogies of recently passed celebs; and as an example of my reticence to walk the path at the edge of opportunism, I mentioned in very general terms this narrative, which I have carried around with me, unwritten, for more than four decades. And once again, a number of writer friends have prodded me to publish the story.

As a result, here it is. I believe a valuable life-lesson runs through it, one not of anger or regret, but one of hope. Let's see what you think.

I can't remember if I cried ... But something touched me deep inside ...

Don McLean in Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

In those days, I was a graduate philosophy student at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. For about a year, I had been teaching logic part time for Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, IL; and in the spring of 1968, I was doing an introductory logic course for graduating high school seniors as part of a "head start" program being run by SIU for select soon-to-be freshmen coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I taught that particular course using a classroom at a high school in East St. Louis, IL, just across the river from St. Louis, MO, where I was living. There is no other way to describe East St. Louis at the time as other than a war zone. Social and economic discrimination and deprivation had taken its tollor more accurately, had kept it from achieving even the basics of a sustainable local economy.

In the midst of these depressing conditions, my class of  about twenty students, some of them white, but most of them black, was replete with some of the most earnest and hard-working students I've ever taught. They were headed to college, their escape ladder from the deprivation and disappointment surrounding them. And they were as determined as any I've ever met to succeed. So injust were their circumstances, and so deep the struggles of these young adults, it just made you want to cry.

Anyway, the class was going great. One of the best I've ever taught, then or since. Then around 6:00 pm on April 4, 1968, the news flash came in... Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed.

I knew most of my East St. Louis students would be devastated. And I hoped that SIU extension class administration would cancel my class that evening out of respect for them and their feelings. But I could not reach anyone in SIU administration at that time, no matter how hard I triedand I tried. But that was in the days before cellphones, so I decided to make the half-hour or so drive to post a note cancelling the class, in case anyone showed up. Which I feared some might do, because of their dedication and determination. I felt it was the least I could do.

And singin' this'll be the day that I die... This'll be the day that I die...

Don McLean in Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

I listened to the radio as I drove the half-hour across the Mississippi River to East St. Louis. Not many details were yet being carried in the news reports, and things seemed fairly quiet along the way from the Interstate to the high school parking lot.

When I arrived, I could see what appeared to be maybe fifteen or twenty young people milling about. But the situation did not appear outwardly overly threatening.

Now perhaps, it will help you better understand my perceptions and actions, if I explain that I grew up in inner-city Chicago, early on the West Side near Roosevelt Road and Kedzie Avenue, then later on the South Side. And that I attended high school first at Chicago Vocational, an area-wide technical school known for being a "hard" place, then later at Hyde Park HS at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, which was located in an area about as different from the white-bread suburbs as you could find. Consequently, I was no stranger to street toughs, and I figured I would just post the notice canceling my class and leave. Big mistake.

Within a few steps of exiting my pick-up truck, I was surrounded by a group of what I could now see was about forty people. And from the looks on the the faces of those nearest to me, and the tone of their street talk, I quickly realized that I could be in real trouble. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the crowd thought I was a white student who had come to attend a night class, in total disregard for the feelings of the community and its grief over what had happened that day. And although Don McLean had not yet published Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie, a refrain something like, "This could be the day that I die..." began looping at the back of my mind.

Then, just as I was trying to explain my reason for being there, a group of about half a dozen of my students, both male and female, pushed their way through the crowd. They literally formed a cordon around me, while the biggest of them asked, then explained to the crowd what I was doing there, took the notice from my hand, and showed it to some of the toughs pushing in. The group of my students then escorted me back to my pick-up, told me not to be so foolhardy in future, said they sincerely hoped to see me back after things cooled down, and finally, made sure I could leave the lot without being further accosted. All of which they did at no small risk to themselves. For had the situation escalated out of control, they would have paid the price with me.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood...

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his I Have a Dream speech

The experience of that day touched me to my very core, and has remained vivid in my memory ever since. I have no illusions that what played out in that East St. Louis high school parking lot was some sort of real-world incarnation of a spiritually uplifting Sidney Poitier movie. There was no inspirational music playing in the background, no Hollywood teen cuties gathering around in giggling adulation. It did, however, signal to me that hope can justifiably spring eternal, and that people of fundamentally and instinctual goodwill can genuinely connect across racial and economic divides.

Given the acrimony that appears to be building with the coming presidential election, I find that I am moved to share, for what it is worth, the lesson of that experience. And let me be clear that I do so in a personal statement of concern, and affirmation of hope for the future of this nation. —  Phil Friedman

Postscript: It's my experience, that racial and ethnic prejudice is not innate, but must be taught. Moreover, that once taught, it must be reinforced at every turn, if it is to survive. For the normal human spirit is wont to reach out on a person-to-person basis in friendship and mutual concern, notwithstanding differences in skin color, ethnicity, or even religion.

This is a basic tenet of the philosophy of non-violent social action, shared by Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi.  For my part, I am not so sure about the efficacy of non-violence in the face of violent hate, but rather believe that violent hate must often be met not with hate, but nevertheless with countervailing force. Still, however you may come down on that particular issue, the universally shared commitment must be to social justice, if our children are to have a future worth living. PLF

Author's Notes:  This is an unusually personal post for me, although of late, I have been writing and publishing more in the line of philosophical reflection. Should you be interested in reading some of my writings in that area, an index of some of several of my previously published posts can be found at:

"If I Do Say So Myself —  An Index of Blog Posts"

If you'd  like to receive notifications of my writings on a regular basis, click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.

Feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other LinkedIn articles — whether on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, provided only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to my original post.

About me, Phil Friedman:  With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.

Image Credits: The author, Google Images, and The Dallas Morning News


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Phil Friedman

3 years ago #49

It's my experience, that racial and ethnic prejudice is not innate, but must be taught. Moreover, that once taught, it must be reinforced at every turn, if it is to survive. For the normal human spirit is wont to reach out on a person-to-person basis in friendship and mutual concern, notwithstanding differences in skin color, ethnicity, or even religion...

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #48

Thank you Ben for reading and saying so. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #47

Actually, Aurorasa, I try generally to be a voice of reason, or at least a defender of rationality. Thank you for the kind word. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #46

Thank you, Aurorasa, for reading and commenting. I agree, although I tend to focus on what I believe is the fundamental goodness of the great mass of humanity. I agree that the problem is not standing up to those who would lead some of that humanity into beliefs and acts that are monstrous.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #45

Yes, Mohammad Azarn Khan, I truly believe that, left to its own devices, the vast majority of humanity would live in peace. I have met only a very few individuals whom I would describe as bad-hearted, and even in those few cases, I believe it was social institutions and related influences that conditioned them to be so. My best to you.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #44

Donna-Luisa Eversley, that is very kind of you to say. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #43

@Gerald Hecht - thank you for saying so. And as always, for reading and commenting. Your offbeat perspective is always welcome. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #42

Thank you Frans van Wamel, for reading and commenting, and for the kind words. I think one lesson in the situation was that the crod's anger was based on more than my simply being of a different race, and when they realized they were wrong, they backed off. Cheers!

Frans van Wamel

5 years ago #41

Truly an inspirational experience Phil Friedman. No body has the right to harm another, but every body has the right to defend yourself to prevent another to take what is yours. You had a note, that was all it took for the Universe to respond I would argue my friend. Through these life changing events I am sure you also have come to learn that whatever you not only ardently desire, but also have written down, must come to pass. Love your writing.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #40

Thank you, Paul Kearley, for reading and commenting, and for the kind words. They are what make the effort and pain of writing worthwhile. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #39

Thank you, Kevin Pashuk, for reading and commenting so eloquently. For me, as you know, the incident carries a message of eternal hope. (To be distinguished from hope of the eternal.) Cheers!

Kevin Pashuk

5 years ago #38

Phil Friedman, I bookmarked this post a while ago knowing it would need more than a brief skim. I was right. It was a defining point in history for those of us who were alive then, and hopefully it was not a moment wasted, rather used to help us make decisions to address the issues that would lead to such an act. Unfortunately, nations don't seem to learn from history and we have an increased legacy of defining points in history that were driven by hate. You brought out the other facet of behaviour in your story - those that chose to do the right thing (which was protecting you) at the time when all their peers were being motivated by anger. The world (and your life) is better because of their choices that day. May we ourselves emulate them and do the right thing when events give us every justification to act out in anger.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #37


Phil Friedman

5 years ago #36

Thank you, Rod Loader, for sharing this post.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #35

Thank you, @Sarah Elkins, for reading and commenting. And for the kind words.

Milos Djukic

5 years ago #34

Very true Phil Friedman.

Sarah Elkins

5 years ago #33

I'm hopeful as well, Phil, and I'm grateful for this post. It's a beautiful reminder of our humanity and inhumanity. Thank you.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #32

Mark Anthony, thank you for reading and commenting. I understand what you are saying... I think. But in the words of your Shakespearean namesake, "“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once..." And we have more examples than not of the endurance of the human spirit. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #31

Alice Long -Thank you for reading and commenting. Cory Galbraith says in a recent article that the real problem in the world is us, the people. I don't agree. Left to our own devices, free of the prejudice and hatred foisted upon us by religious zealots, governments, and so-called leaders, most people manage to get along. It's when we allow our insitutions to take over that there is a problem. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #30

Thank you, Jim Murray, for reading and commenting. There is no doubt that the world is a dangerous place... but it always has been. My personal approach is to prepare myself (within reason), stay alert, and minimize taking avoidable risks. However, once one has done all possible and reasonable, then one needs to get on with it. For if you can't effect, or even affect an outcome, there is nothing more to do, and the words of Mark Anthony apply.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #29

Thank you Franci Eugenia Hoffman, for reading and commenting. I agree that sometimes there are reasons for things that happen and we don't yet know what they are, but in my experience there are also happenings that occur with not reason at all, which is why polytheism has always made more rational sense than monotheism. Cheers!

This is a very moving post Phil Friedman, and I am glad you shared your experience. There are reasons for things that happen, but we don't always see them right away.

Jim Murray

5 years ago #27

Interesting post amigo. The feeling of being in real danger is something that too many people get to experience these days. It feels like the world is a little crazier than usual. Of maybe it's not and we just hear about things quicker. I would say "Great Post" and all that, but you know I would never want to make you feel like and INfuencer from the Lumpy Kingdom of the Might Hamsters.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #26

@Bill Stankiewicz - Thank you for reading and commenting, and for taking the time to say you liked it. For that is one of the things that makes the effort of writing worthwhile. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #25

Thank you, Milos Djukic, for sharing this post, one that I've carried around with me, unpublished, for many years. Cheers!

Wow great story here, very heart touching. Thanks for sharing !! regards, Bill Stankiewicz.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #23

Thank you, John John White, MBA, for reading and the kind words. Pleased you liked the piece. Cheers!

John White, MBA

5 years ago #22

Phil Friedman I was moved very deeply by the story. Thanks for putting this one out there.

Milos Djukic

5 years ago #21

Phil Friedman, Mr No-Muzak, Kudos :)

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #20

Thank you, Cheryl Snapp Conner, for reading, and for the very kind words. I am pleased that you found the piece of value. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #19

Thank you, , for reading and for commenting so clearly from the heart. I concur that we should never give up hope, nor cease efforts in the struggle to make this world a better place. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #18

Brigette Hyacinth, I am honored to read your words, but really not worthy of them. The truly deserving recipients of those thoughts are those kids who were my students. Their courage and grit in facing their daily lives -- never mind the happenings in the parking lot -- were inspiring. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #17

Thank you. Paul \, for reading and commenting... notwithstanding your jibe about age. Seriously, I am pleased that so many of my fellow independent writers, for whom I have great respect, like the post. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #16

Andrew Books - Andy, truth be known, it is in good measure your repeated prodding which motivated me to finally publish the piece. If you were a lot better looking, I might confuse you with my wife. Thanks. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #15

Candice Galek, the gods watch over children and fools == except, I guess, when they don't. Thank you for reading and commenting. Cheers!

Candice 🐝 Galek

5 years ago #14

Another great post, thank you Phil Friedman. What might have happened had you not had that notice in your hand..

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #13

Thank you, Dean Owen, for reading and commenting. I think it is important, as you astutely perceive, to understand that we do not live in the movies.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #12

Thank you, Sabin, for reading and commenting, and continuing to hope for a better world.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #11

Thank you, Pascal Derrien, for reading and commenting. My best to you.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #10

Claire Cardwell, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. It's an important story for me. Cheers!

Dean Owen

5 years ago #9

This is not only your story Phil Friedman, but the history of a nation divided to this day. I have seen these scene play out in the movies, Sidney Poitier was a bit before my time, but certainly the movies "42" "Remember the Titans" and a favourite "Do the right thing" come to mind. (yeah, even though I never played baseball in my life, I love baseball movies). Thanks for sharing after all those years.

Pascal Derrien

5 years ago #8

that is some story behind the history

Pascal Derrien

5 years ago #7

wow that is some story !!!! I am glad you shared it :-)

Claire L Cardwell

5 years ago #6

Great post Phil, when I was a baby my Dad was transferred to Bulgaria, we didn't return to the UK until I was 5 and I remember seeing a black person for the first time, I was fascinated and promptly asked my mother if there were green or purple people too! You are so right about racism being taught!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #5

Thank you, Debasish Majumder, for reading and commenting.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #4

Aleta Curry, thank you for reading and commenting.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #3

Oliver Maloney, thank you for sharing this story. My best to you.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #2

Thank you, Javier C\u00e1mara Rica, for sharing this post.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #1

@Candice Galek, John White, MBA - this is the story that several of you have in the past said I should publish. I was going to push the publish button yesterday, but held off out of respect to the grieving in Orlando, to whom my sincerest sympathy for their loss is extended.

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