I Needed This Reminder

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One of the best aspects of being retired is that I now have time to ponder more than I did when work required me to adhere to a strict schedule. I am able to read more and even to indulge in moments of sitting in silence with my thoughts for long stretches of time. I still serve my many grandchildren with my educational expertise whenever they require a bit of guidance or encouragement with their studies. Each summer I read the same books that they are assigned for their pre-advanced placement and advanced placement classes, so that I might help them to analyze and discuss the works when they return to school in August.

One of my grandsons is reading Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World edited by James M. Washington. When my daughter requested that I familiarize myself with the text so that my grandson and I might talk about its implications I was more than eager to delve into the heart of the essays. I have long considered Dr. King to be one of the greatest orators and most influential leaders of the twentieth century and indeed the entirety of history. He is a hero of mine, one of the people I would love to meet when I eventually make it to heaven.

I grew up in the era during which Martin Luther King Jr. did his incredible work. In the year I was born Dr. King was ordained a minister following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. He had been a child during the Great Depression, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia when segregation was still very much a fact of life for blacks just as it still was for most of my own youth. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation was unconstitutional Dr. King was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama and I was about to head to the first grade.

A year later, in 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man, an act for which she was arrested. Her brave action led to a boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president and voice of the efforts to integrate the buses in Montgomery. By then I was joining droves of Baby Boomer children in second grade classrooms that were still mostly segregated in spite of the earlier Supreme Court ruling. I would overhear rumblings of discussions from my father and grandfather who believed in those days that children should be sent from the room when politics were the subject of conversations. I was a nosy child who would hide behind a wall listening to their voices as they spoke of the coming changes.

In 1957, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to allow nine black children to enter a previously all white school in Little Rock. I did not watch or witness the historic moment on television back then, but I vividly recall the many times that my dad and granddad talked about it when we visited my grandparents’ farm in Arkansas. That year Martin Luther King Jr. was elected as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and  the reach of his crusade for justice widened. I would enter the third grade at the same time that those little children so bravely struck a blow for freedom in Arkansas. I was not totally unaware of the importance of that school year in the struggle to end segregation but I would not be affected by it in the little bubble that was my neighborhood.

The work to break the hold of Jim Crow laws and segregational policies continued throughout my elementary and middle school years. By the time I entered high school the Civil Rights movement was in full force and Dr. King had become one of its most admired voices. The concept of non-violent passive resistance was being used to integrate restaurants and universities and to expand the voting power of black citizens. Just before I entered my second year of high school the famous march on Washington D.C. captured my attention and I listened to Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech with rapt admiration. I was hooked by its message and forevermore there would be no turning back to the ugliness and injustice of segregation for me. I was a devoted disciple of Dr. King and would hang on his every word and action. His influence over me would be enormous.

Just before I entered my senior year of high school President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Sadly the arc of justice was still far from complete. In college I would become more and more passionate about causes of equality and fairness. My generation was literally taking to the streets to protest all signs of legally condoned injustice. The laws of separate but equal were no more, but the seeds of racism still grew like weeds and I was eager to pluck them wherever they grew.

In the spring of 1968, I was planning my wedding when I heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I had been washing dishes when the word came and I remember slumping onto the floor in front of the sink where I sobbed uncontrollably. I was devastated beyond words and wondered how our country would be without the conscience and profound thoughts of this great man. His insights stay with me and guide me for the next fifty years of my life.

I am a seventy year old woman now. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and influence have been a defining force for me even to this day. Reading his speeches and essays once again has brought me to tears and helped me to consider both the progress and the difficulties that remain in the long fight for justice. We have yet to achieve his dream, and of late we seem even to have slid back into a kind of ugliness that he had hoped to one day eradicate.

If Dr. King were still alive today he would be a very old man. I wonder what he might say about the state of our union. There are certainly things of which to be proud, but the work is not done. Would we be farther along in our progress if we still had his voice of reason and love, or would he be discouraged that we still have remnants of violence and hate? Whatever the case, reading his words has enlivened my own spirit and told me that the road to making his dream a reality is a worthy albeit difficult pathway.

As I write this I am gratified in knowing that my grandson is unfamiliar with concepts of segregation. I love that he innocently sees no color in his friends. The fact that I have to explain the evils that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of indicates to me that we have indeed moved the arc of history ever closer to the ideals of agape which Martin Luther King so eloquently explained as “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…when we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves us. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. With this type of love and understanding good will we will be able to stand amid the radiant glow of the new age with dignity and discipline. Yes, the new age is coming”      (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing the Challenge of a New Age, 1957)

I needed this reminder!