1965: A Year of Change

Abby Hansen, guest writer

“Happy New Year!” the room echoes with clinking glasses, laughing voices, and toasts to a prosperous year. I hit my glass against Lisa’s, and we laugh as her little brother literally holds his eyes open.

“Did you see me Lisa? I stayed up… all…” Andy’s mouth widens in a yawn and he barely finishes, “all…year.” His shining brown eyes disappear as his eyelids fall shut and his six-year-old body collapses into Lisa.

“Well, it was good to see all of you,” booms Lisa’s father, “Glad to being in another year with our friends, but now I think we should go.”

As we wave goodbye from our porch, I wonder what the year 1965 will bring.

*          *          *

“Cynthia!” Lisa’s voice and pounding footsteps shatter the comfort of sleep. Fuzzily, through half-opened eyelids, I watch the hands on my clock tick over the six.

“Lisa,” I groan, “this better be good. I still have thirty minute’s worth of sleep left.”

“Look at this!”

I shove the newspaper out of my face and take in the front page. There, right underneath The Lincoln Journal Star and today’s date, February 22, 1965, is an article about the assassination of Malcolm X. I shoot a questioning glance at Lisa then frantically scan the article.

Yesterday, as Malcolm X spoke at Manhattan’s Audubon, he was shot “twenty-one times with a shotgun and two handguns” (Jackson). The police currently have three men in custody, but believe others are involved.

“Wow. What does this mean?”

“Means my dad’ll be happy,” Lisa says.

“Mine too. He thinks Malcolm is too violent.”

“Yeah, my dad is more of a Martin Luther King, Jr. person.”

There is no way I can fall back asleep, so Lisa and I head downstairs for breakfast. My parents sit at the table with their morning coffee and our copy of The Lincoln Journal Star.

“I think I’ll join,” dad states, tapping an article about recruitments for Vietnam.

My mother looks up sharply and sets her coffee mug down too calmly. I drag Lisa out the door to avoid hearing the inevitable argument.

*          *          *

Mrs. Phillips, Lisa, Andy, my mother, and I all settle into our living room to watch the Sunday night movie while my dad and Mr. Phillips are still at work. Tonight’s movie is Judgement at Nuremberg, and Andy is especially intrigued.

About halfway through the movie, however, the television screen starts flickering and the picture changes abruptly. Instead of a courtroom, images of teargas and stampeding people flash across the screen.

The camera pans to a reporter: “We are here in Selma, Alabama where civil rights protestors have attempted a march from the small town to the state’s capital of Montgomery. However, state troopers have stopped the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by means of teargas, whips, and clubs (“King).”

Lisa’s mother hugs Andy close so he won’t see the brutal images. My mother squeezes her friend’s hand in comfort. Rage fills the pale faces of the policemen as their clubs strike agony into the darker features of the protestors. Lisa holds her head in her deep, chocolate-colored hands, and I feel intense shame for my pale ones.

On screen, two women call for a doctor as they struggle to support a third woman. Their frantic cries hang in the air and follow me to bed. Like ghosts the desperate cries hang over me as I give up sleeping. The shock of having that much raw hatred force its way into my living room numbs my thoughts. The police, the supposed protectors of our communities, destroyed a crowd of peaceful protestors. This madness has to end.

*          *          *

We sit around the dining room table, glaring at each other.

“I just don’t see why I can’t go,” I say, forcing my frustration back into my mind so it doesn’t leak out through my voice, “This time the march will be protected by order of the president. Besides, Lisa’s parents are letting her go with her cousins, and you know how protective they are.”

“I don’t care,” my mother retorts with an identical tone of voice, “You have no reason to go, so why should you put yourself in danger?”

“No reason?” I exclaim, “So the injustice of denying an entire race of people basic rights isn’t reason enough?”

“Honey, that’s not what I meant.”

“So, dad, have you heard back from the recruitment center?”

He coughs in surprise and shrinks away from the bullets my mother’s eyes shoot at him.

“You didn’t.”

“Well, actually,” my dad confesses, “I’m scheduled to ship out on April 5.”

“I cannot believe you!”

I escape to my room as their voices climb higher and higher. Dad wants to fulfill his American duty and serve his country. Mom says he’s already fulfilled that duty twice, and neither time was directly for his country.

“You’ve already fought in Germany and Korea. What more do they need from you? Why must you leave me to fight for other countries?” my mother’s words sound watery.

Gently, dad attempts to console her. Their bedroom door slams, and I hear my father turn on the news. I creep downstairs and sit next to him on the couch. President Lyndon B. Johnson voices his support for the upcoming Selma march.

“And we shall overcome!” (“King) he declares in his closing words.

“I’m going,” I whisper to my dad.

“I know,” he murmurs back, “Just come home safe.”

“You too.”

*          *          *

“Come on,” I mutter. Finally, the green thunderbird containing Lisa and her cousins swings around the corner.

“About time,” I sigh, crawling into the backseat.


Oh no.

“Cynthia, what are you doing?”

I ignore my mother and close the door.

“Drive,” I order Lisa’s cousin Steven, “Just drive.”

*          *          *

Everywhere I look, I see people. We are all pressed into one giant mass of protest. As we walk out of Brown Chapel and down the main street of Selma, I grab Lisa’s hand so as not to lose her, and we join the rest of the marchers in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Soldiers flank us for protection, and this time we make it across the bridge without violence. I still cannot believe I’m actually here, making history. Television crews follow us, and I wonder if my parents are watching. Can mom see me right now?

For five days we march to Montgomery. On March 25 we stand in front of the capital building to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.

“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (King).

*          *          *

A week before dad’s scheduled departure, I stand on my front porch with one hand clutching my suitcase and the other holding the door handle. It’s locked. Swallowing my anxiety, I tap on the door. My mother’s heels click across the house. I turn myself into a statue instead of tearing off down the street. The lock clicks, the knob turns, and the door opens. I meet my mother’s eyes and watch a dozen emotions flash through them before they settle on anger. She turns and marches back into the house. I climb the stair to my room and collapse on my bed.

*          *          *

“And you tell me, over and over and over again, my friend. You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”

The words to Barry McGuire’s song  play through my head on repeat as we drive dad to the recruitment center. Not a single word is spoken in the car.

We climb out and stand in the recruitment center parking lot. I wrap my arms around my father and he squeezes me back.

“I love you,” I speak into his chest.

“I love you too, sweetie. Don’t worry, I’ll come home.”

“Don’t go,” mom’s desperate, tearstained voice pleads, “Please don’t go.”

Dad releases me and holds her.

“Please,” she begs.

“I love you. I’ll come home. I promise.”

An officer calls the volunteers, and dad has to go.

“No,” mom whispers as he walks away.

I wrap my arms around her shaking shoulders.

“What if he doesn’t come home this time?” she whispers into my hair. The first sentence she’s spoken to me since my return.

“He promised.”

“But what if he’s wrong?”

We stand by the car for a while, holding each other and crying.

*          *          *

“Happy birthday!”

I blow out the candles on the German chocolate cake my mom made, and smile at all my friends. I wish dad was here. Eight months without him is too long.

“Well, how does it feel to be twenty?” Lisa demands.

“Oh it’s great being old like you,” I tease.

Lisa rolls her eyes and hands me a box wrapped with newspaper form August. The headlines read “LBJ Signs Voting Rights Act into Law.” She is still beyond ecstatic about the civil rights progress we’ve made, and is thoroughly convinced that this is a direct result of the Selma to Montgomery march.

Slowly – taking care not to rip the precious newsprint – I reveal a book. It’s C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

“Thanks,” I smile.

*          *          *

The next morning I walk into the kitchen and see my mother sitting frozen at the table, staring at an envelope. It’s from the army. She turns to me with hollow, fearful eyes.

“I’m too scared to open it.”

Gently, I take the envelope from her hands. I breathe in deeply, then rip it open in one swift motion. My hands shake as I unfold the letter. The words blur on the page except for one line: “Henry Wallace was killed in Vietnam.”

Involuntarily, my fingers curl into a fist and crush the letter into a tight ball.

“No!” my mother dissolves into tears, “He promised!”

I pull her close and she sobs against my shoulder.

“He promised,” she chokes, “He promised.”

*          *          *

Christmas has come and gone, but we barely noticed. It’s New Year’s Eve, and tonight I am alone in my room while my mother sleeps. I wasn’t planning on staying up until midnight, but I couldn’t sleep. 1965 ends on a hollow note. Hello 1966.


Works Cited

Jackson, Andrew Grant. 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music. New York City: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Print.

King Jr. Martin Luther. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle. Retrieved August (1965): 2015.

“King Leads March from Selma to Montgomery, March, 1965.” DISCovering U.S. History. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.


Gorman, Robert F. The 20th Century. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2008. Print.

“Jim Crow Laws.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Ed. Thomas Riggs. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Farmington Hills: Gale, 2015. 667-670. Student Resources in Context. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

“The Vietnam War.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: Government and Politics. Detroit: Gale, 2009. Student Resources in Context. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.