I was nineteen years old that April when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died. I felt as though I myself had been attacked by a bullet when I heard the news of his assassination. I was shocked, devastated. He was and remains my hero, a larger than life figure who made a lasting imprint on my life when I was only tentatively entering adulthood. That was almost fifty years ago and in the years that followed his murder I have lived through a lifetime and become what society views as an old woman. Still the memories that I have of Dr. King are as fresh and vibrant as if they had occurred only yesterday. I cherish the fact that I was old enough to remember the world as it was before he so courageously sought to change it. For it is in knowing the impact of his influence that I am able to understand why he is perhaps the most important figure of the twentieth century.
I am a child of the south who saw the injustice of segregation. I used to ride a bus to downtown Houston with my mother from our home just a block away from what was then called South Park Boulevard. I enjoyed those adventures on public transportation far more than simply jumping into our car and riding to our favorite shopping spots. My mother had grown up taking a bus into town from her childhood house near Navigation. She regularly jumped aboard the carrier that transported her to shopping, movies and her first paid jobs. It felt natural to her to take a bus to get around the city rather than to fight traffic and so we often waited on the corner until the great big conveyance stopped to let us on.
There were not usually many people on the bus when we first stepped aboard but by the time that we reached our downtown destination it was packed. Back then I was only five or six years old and thought little about the seating arrangements that were literally dictated by law. There was an invisible line of demarcation separating those of us with white skin from our fellow Houstonians with darker complexions. They mostly joined us on our journey as we got closer to downtown, usually around Scott Street, obediently moving to the seats in the back, quietly enduring their humiliation.
As a child I was curious to know why such traditions existed but the way in which my mother would silence my inquiries told me that there was something secret and painful about the situation that I was not deemed old enough to understand. I remember sneaking peeks at my fellow travelers and wondering why we needed to be set apart from one another. I was still an obedient child and dared not question my elders but the whole thing seemed rather silly to me.
Our city was filled with shameful rules that prohibited those same folks who sat at the back of the bus from eating in the restaurants where we enjoyed lunch. There were separate water fountains and bathrooms for them as well. I didn’t understand but I complied with the unjust directions while questions began swirling inside my head even back then. I suppose that I have always been a bit of an old soul and my five year old mind felt the wrongness of what was happening even while the adults around me seemed not to even notice.
I came of age in the nineteen sixties, turbulent times defined by war, violence and open protest and questioning. Television had become a commonplace way of viewing world events on a nightly basis. I was educated by nuns and priests from the north whose points of view were often more radical than those of the southerners who were my neighbors and fellow citizens. I had eagerly watched the civil rights movement unfold from the summer when I took my last vacation with my father before he died. I was seven then and those weeks were punctuated by an awakening within my mind. I had overheard discussions between my father and grandfather about integration efforts in schools in Arkansas. I saw African Americans mingling with whites during our trip to Chicago as though there was nothing more natural. Somehow I realized that the way of doing things in my hometown were wrong and I audaciously announced my feelings to my parents who urged me to be cautious in pronouncing such radical ideas to strangers who might not take so kindly to my thinking.
By the time I was a teenager my sense of justice was full blown and I was no longer afraid to speak my mind. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had become the embodiment of all of the values that I held dear. He was a hero of enormous magnitude in my mind. His was a message of love and tolerance. He was noble and brave and seemed to follow the teachings and example of Jesus Himself. Little did I truly understand the depth of this remarkable man. I worshipped him only superficially without knowing how human he was and how difficult and dangerous it was for him to assume the mantle of leadership in a cause that would ultimately lead him to his death. I would be nearer to the age that he was when he died before I would truly understand his greatness.
I have read many books and stories about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was thrust into a battle for justice that he did not seek. He was given a gift of oratory that was able to put the frustrations of his brothers and sisters into unforgettable words. Time and again he had to pray for the strength to endure the hatred that followed and threatened him wherever he went. He might have turned away from his destiny but somehow he soldiered on again and again. Always he spoke of unity and tolerance and the power of love. The more I learned about him, the larger his influence loomed in my mind. He was undoubtedly one of the the greatest Americans of all time, deserving of a place in history alongside the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Martin Luther King was struck down before his work was finished but he had accomplished so much. Young people today can’t even begin to imagine the horror of segregation that I witnessed and thankfully didn’t have to endure simply because I was born with white skin. We have truly come a long way from those days but there is still divisiveness in many circles. While it should not make the least bit of difference, there are still those who make judgements about their fellow humans based only on the color of skin or texture of hair. A residue of the kind of hatefulness that prompted the assassination of Dr. King remains even almost fifty years later. When, I wonder, will the ugliness be completely eradicated from our thinking and what will it take to get us to a place where there are no more Dylan Roofs who slaughter innocents peacefully going about their lives at church?
I am almost thirty years older than Dr. King was when he died. He never got the opportunity to see the changes that I have seen. He did not live to witness the first African American President of the United States. He never realized the ultimate power of his legacy. He was instead quite weary on the day that he died. His energy and enthusiasm were severely taxed because there was still so much more work to be done. He experienced profound agony in understanding that man’s inhumanity to man is an evil that must be overcome one person and one situation at a time in an almost endless cycle. Still he held fast to a belief in possibilities, reminding us again and again that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” He fully believed those words as do I to this very day.
Our world is in a state of tumult once again. Our young in particular are questioning the way we do things just as our children have throughout history. They look at our society with fresh eyes and wonderment. They are searching for answers to the questions that daunt them and redress to the unfairness that they see. I pray that they too will find a hero as magnificent as mine. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was imperfect like those who founded our country but he rose above his fears and his flaws to lead us in a cause that was far bigger than himself. He did so with grace and sacrifice and showed us what we can accomplish if we put love at the forefront of our lives.