Jim Fleming’s Essay on a Grey World

I’m prepping for my trip to Boston, but I wanted to take a minute to bring up this beautiful essay by Jim Fleming. I love listening to NPR while printing, and To The Best of Our Knowledge is in constant rotation with This American Life. I started listening to the episode of TTBOOK entitled “Sympathy for the Devil” on Friday, and got to this essay. I then stopped listening to it, mainly to soak in what was being said, and listened to the whole episode again today. The reason I listened to it twice was to hear this essay for a second time. Please read it, and if you can, I really recommend listening to Fleming recite it, how he paces the essay is incredibly poignant.


Essay on a Grey World

By: Jim Fleming 

Listening to Daniel McGowan remembering what he had done made me think about a different time. In the spring of 1967 I was 18, and students marched on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison to protest the Vietnam War.  After vigorous debate, things quieted down and I thought, “This is the way disputes are resolved.” 

In the fall of 1967, students marched to protest recruiting by Dow Chemical Company.  74 were injured, and what I remember is the reek of tear gas and thinking, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” 

In 1968, I was 19 and I woke up in my dorm room to the news of the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.  The remembered smell of tear gas was vivid as I watched the television coverage of the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and I was thinking, “This makes me angry.  Who can justify this?” 

In 1969, I was 20, and watched the nightly news, as we learned about the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, and I thought, “This doesn’t just make me angry; this is evil.  How can we have come to this?” 

And in the spring of 1970, I was 21 when the students died on the campus of Kent State and the evil continued.  Suddenly, to me it was absolutely clear: the authorities were wrong and the protesters were right.  The world was black and white. 

In august of 1970, I snapped on the radio as I was driving cross-country to a friend’s wedding.  On the news I learned that four young men had exploded a bomb outside the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus, back home in Madison.  A young researcher named Robert Fassnacht, working late that night died, and I thought, “The world has just become gray again. The devil was closer to home.”  And I began to learn that in the real world, no one is all wrong or all right. 

So why did people have to die to teach a generation of kids that lesson? Oh, don’t get me wrong, several decades have passed and I believe absolutely in the right to protest.  I believe absolutely in the NEED to protest.  I just don’t believe, absolutely, anymore, that anything is black and white.


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