With national recognition of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, I refer readers to my July 25, 2013, column headlined, “Racism in the Valley confronted head-on” and offer a timely and practical perspective.
Late August 1963 as a 26-year-old U.S. Army Ranger Special Operations captain assigned to the CIA in the Kennedy Administration’s covert war to overthrow the Russian-supported Cuban leader Fidel Castro, I tried to rest on the on the foredeck of the Leda, a World War II minesweeper the CIA had converted for use as a mothership to deliver exiled Cuban paramilitary freedom fighters to the island.
On a sweltering afternoon, I was topside, bored and anxious, scanning the glassy sea hoping to see the small boats containing a four-man exile volunteer team we had sent ashore in darkness 48 hours earlier. They were young Cuban boys, about my age and all were black. They performed exceedingly well in training. This mission involved the delivery and hiding of four 100-pound waterproof aluminum cache containers filled with weapons, ammo, equipment and supplies for freedom fighters we had previously inserted into the country. In two 14-foot Boston whalers, it was a high risk operation.
We heard gunfire from the coast near where the team should have gone ashore, then their radio went dead. The men had not returned to the rendezvous point with the Leda as planned. If they did not appear soon, we would consider them lost, and the Leda would return to its South Florida port.
I had brought with me my battery-powered, state-of-the art portable Zenith Transoceanic radio. I scanned the shortwave frequency bands hoping there might be something from my cache mission team.
Switching frequencies, I happened upon a stateside broadcast of King’s speech in Washington. I was deeply moved. In the course of my military experience as an enlisted man and officer, I had close association with many minorities — Asian, African-Americans and Native Americans. I witnessed the segregation that prevailed in much of America.
Now, I was facing the possible loss of the four black men we had sent on a mission in the interest of our nation at that time. They had fled Castro’s Cuba in belief of the American concept of freedom, justice and equality. Once safe on our soil, they volunteered to go back to Cuba at great personal risk in the cause of liberating their countrymen.
I was heartsick that night when the Leda was ordered to return to Port Everglades, Fla. Aug. 28, 1963, and King’s speech will live with me until I die.
On the 50th anniversary of the events of that date, I ponder my personal experiences and the real impact of King’s inspired words. I ask myself, what have I done to further a realization of the “dream,” overcome prejudice, racism and intolerance from my reclusive wilderness hideaway in the Wisconsin northwoods. As someone who has deep and abiding interest in Stillwater and the St. Croix Valley, I offer an idea in the context of King’s speech and my personal experience.
As we look for an alternative to Lumberjack Days, I have some ideas to avoid the commercialized insult it became to the founding concept.
First, we need to recognize that downtown Stillwater is not the heart and soul of the community at large. The region has grown with business establishments, vital commercial and residential interests far beyond Main Street. The attraction of the St. Croix River waterfront is gradually being diminished by commercial overuse and infrastructure degradation. The area desperately needs renovation, a consideration abandoned when the city enthusiastically supported construction of the new bridge.
Second, aside from the crass commercialism that took priority under the Lumberjack Days Festival Association and its yet-to-be resolved financial relationship with St. Croix Events and Dave Eckberg, make the new festival a truly community-wide event and not an excuse for overrated events and carousing that came to characterize the festival over the last 25 years.
Third, take a big step and make it a collective celebration of cultural, ethnic, racial and lifestyle diversity in a modified New Orleans Mardi Gras-style. Here are some specific ideas:
- Solicit participation from minority elements in the community. Our region is rich in diverse cultures and alternative lifestyles, cuisines, crafts, arts, dance and other expressions.
- Incorporate a thrill interest — a skydiving event to initiate a 10K race from the Stillwater or Oak Glen Golf Course finishing with an awards ceremony accompanied by the Stillwater Area High School Band at Pioneer Park.
- Before and beginning with day one, promote local and ethnic/cultural specific booths, display crafts, foods etc. along downtown streets.
- Promote/discount a traditional Friday night fish fry (or spaghetti feed) at restaurants.
- Dueling orchestra bands on a Friday evening with live classical music on the grounds of the Washington County Historic Courthouse alternated with selections of live band/march/patriotic music from the Veterans Memorial across the street.
- Saturday, an intermittent skydiving display with water landings in front of Lowell Park and mock a simulated water rescue by local emergency responders to demonstrate their skills.
- Sunday, the event would conclude with local folk music, and laser light show at Pioneer Park. Around noon, a grand Mardi Gras-style parade along Main Street, emphasizing participation and inclusion of all minorities with dance, floats, etc. including Veteran and Military representation. The parade theme would reflect an all inclusive celebration of life, in the spirit of MLK’s “I have a dream” speech.
Brad Ayers grew up in Stillwater and once was a writer for the Gazette. He now lives in the Frederic, Wis., area.