It was the summer of 1963. I was 15 years old, a Boy Scout, just in from a week on the trail at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. We had a day to kill in Tent City, the base camp, before the bus took us back to Buffalo, N.Y. I was drinking a lot of 7Up and eating a lot ice cream, having walked in at a very dehydrated 102 pounds. And I was talking to other Scouts.
There is a Boy Scout Camporee/Jamboree tradition of standing in circles with Scouts from other parts of the country or the world, and talking. Somehow, I found myself in a circle with a group from the South. One of them said, “Why can’t the negroes just be patient, and wait for things to change?”
And I said, “They’ve been waiting a hundred years.”
That stopped everything. Ten, twelve Boy Scouts not saying a word, just staring at me. “Hey,” said the guy next to me, “let’s go to my tent.” I said, “Okay.” And as we walked away, with two others, he said, “You can’t say stuff like that. You could’ve got beaten up.” And before I could say anything else, he said, “We’re Jewish. We understand. People have been discriminating against us for 2,000 years.”
For the next hour or so, he and his friends talked to me about growing up Jewish in the Deep South, about their parents’ country club which admitted negroes. We talked about race car drivers, too, Parnelli Jones, who had won the Indy 500 a month or two earlier. And then my new friends walked me back to my tent, probably fearing, and probably right, that I would naively wander into another conversation, where my idealism would be rewarded with a beating. I got back to my tent, and back to Buffalo, safely.
I wish I could thank those young men, but I don’t remember their names.