Some of my best education as a human has come when circumstances in life were turned on their head, the usual points of balance were removed and I was at the mercy of the moment.

One such experience was spending a year near the North Pole in a barren, hostile environment. No trees. No car to drive. No female companionship. No door knobs. No flush toilet handles!

If you can’t adjust to those changes and a lot more, you aren’t a quick learner. You may not even be a survivor.

Valuable as that experience was, another situation far removed from the frozen tundra, had a much more important and lasting effect. Thanks to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In 1970, I was a reporter for WTOP All-News Radio in Washington DC. One weekend, my assignment was to cover commencement at Howard University, at that time, an all-black university in Northeast Washington. Not an area normally hospitable to Caucasians. Especially considering the riots of various sizes, violent deaths and building burnings that had been going on in that part of the city for over a year.

The exercises were in a large, grassy common area surrounded by big brick buildings. A small platform was set to one side; about a thousand students in rows in front. Several black dignitaries were on the platform. Dr. Jackson, then one of the best orators in the country, was commencement speaker.

I got there 10 minutes early. I laid my microphone on the rostrum, then found I had forgotten the 30 foot cord. So, with eight feet to work with, I knelt down on the grass below the dias, facing the students while activities went on above me.

Then reality struck. I was a white man … the only Caucasian for several miles on all sides … on my knees … under a platform filled with black men and facing a thousand graduating black students. In the air you could smell smoke from the latest riots and the fires along Rhode Island Avenue NE.

For the first time in my life, I felt totally cut off from my world with the sensation of being absolutely alone. It was not, at that moment, a learning experience. It was real and I was afraid.

It got worse. Sitting about 25 feet in front of me was a tall, lanky black man. Instead of a mortarboard, he wore a white brimmed hat. His knees were separated and in his hand was a stiletto about 8 inches long. He was staring at me.

Jackson’s speech dealt with difficulties black graduates would have finding jobs in a white world. The deck, he said, was heavily stacked against them. Then his oratory heated up.

“Whitey will try to stop you.” “Whitey won’t let you in the door.” “It’s a white man’s world out there and he wants to keep it that way.” “Smell the smoke from Rhode Island Avenue ‘cause that’s how we got his attention this time.” “You’re going to have to shove whitey aside if you want to find your spot in the world.”

Meantime, the guy with the stiletto was flicking the blade deeper into the grass between his knees. And looking at me. His motions quickened and were harder. He was sinking the blade all the way to the handle. He kept it up for half an hour until Jackson stopped talking.

With Jesse’s last words, I leaped up, grabbed the microphone, crawled under and out the back of the platform and quickly … very quickly … got back to the station car. It was the first and only time a Ford Falcon burned rubber anywhere.

It took several years to learn from that experience. Up to that moment, the only black man I ever knew personally as a kid was the old gentleman who shined shoes at the Trailways bus depot in Bend and later, a few guys in the military. But I was always in the majority; always in control. I thought.

It’s been nearly 40 years since that June day at Howard University. I think about it often. In a positive way. Because that was the day I learned how the other guy felt all his life. I learned that he … not me … had never been in control of his environment and felt there was nothing he could do to change it. I learned the feeling of being a minority in someone else’s world. I learned that I didn’t always have control but, when I did, I had to share it.

An easy lesson? No. But wouldn’t our world be a far better place if each of us thought so? And practiced it?

Barrett Rainey is a semi-retired journalist. He can be reached at 444 NE Winchester, PMB 6-C, Roseburg 97470

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