Our lives are said to be played out in a acts of comedy and tragedy. There is a classical argument that the mixing of pleasure and pain leads to a true philosophical life. Here then is a tale of pleasure and pain.
On April 4, 1968, a friend and I sat in KU’s Hoch Auditorium on the KU campus to see a performance by the comic Bill Cosby. The young comedian was still years away from becoming an American institution. In 1968, Cosby was simply very funny.
His comedy was built around the characters he grew up with in the streets of Philadelphia. Everyone knows Cosby is black. While he made white people laugh, in a subtle but effective way, he also made white people think of what it meant to be a young black American in such troubled times.
Cosby was to perform two shows. We had tickets for the first performance only 13 rows from the stage on the center aisle. I can remember these events easily today because that evening was tragically one never to be forgotten.
Soon into Cosby’s performance, the audio system in the aged auditorium failed. Cosby came down from the stage and walked down the center aisle to just a row from where we were seated. For the next 10 minutes, while KU technicians frantically worked on the audio system, Cosby performed right in front of us doing all he could to be heard by all.
My friend and I were utterly amazed because we were so close to Cosby, but also because of the heavy-hearted news we had heard minutes before the show. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated.
We couldn’t believe how Cosby continued on with his performance. We fully expected it to be cancelled. Only later did we learn that Cosby’s staff had chosen not to inform the comedian of the tragic news until after the first show. When informed, Cosby cancelled the second show immediately.
As we drove home to Topeka, we both had an inkling that our country, already in the early stages of upheaval, was about to face a major seismic shift. Little did we know that in just months – following the assassination of Robert Kennedy – our country would truly never be the same.
America needed to change. We needed brave, daring men and women to force change. Each American needed to be challenged to their very core. Since the day Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to fight the injustice black men and women faced each and every moment of their lives, King put his own life in jeopardy.
Tragically there are casualties in every war. As peace-seeking as King was, his cause was a war. That King willingly faced that harsh reality with such devotion for the well-being of others is a legacy to remember.
I have hurt people needlessly and have done cruel things. I pray I will never allow myself to pretend I am free of prejudice. However, in the depths of my sin, I still can never comprehend the world of hurt and cruelty that so many have inflicted on one race.
I can not conceive what it was and is to be a black man or woman dealing not just with prejudice but with outright hatred that has far too often led to unspeakable inhumanity and death.
In 1977, I spent an entire spring training documenting the Kansas City Royals. I spent my two months at the team motel in Fort Myers, Florida. It was easy to understand why rookies stayed at the motel. What I couldn’t understand was why all the black players did the same. I finally asked star players Hal McRae and Amos Otis why they and the other black players elected to stay at a motel that was far from first class while so many others were now renting condominiums?
The two explained that in 1969, the first season of the Royals existence, it still was considered unsafe for black players to be alone in Florida. There was safety in numbers at the team motel. That bond of color kept them united even in 1977 and for many spring trainings to come. They joked about it at the time, but there was a quietness in the telling of that story that I knew then revealed a deeper remembrance I could only think I understood.
I have never forgotten that simple and frank story or the night I laughed over comedy while tragedy filled our country. I admit I didn’t want the comedy to stop that night in 1968, but I knew it was time to face the tragedy and its reality. There would be no time to be philosophical.
Then, as today, there was only time to change.