Doctor King I

[Note: I promised last week that I was going to post a piece about contemporary speech. It’s in the can but it’ll keep.]

It’s been 20 years now, so the day we’ve set aside to honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., is just about as profanely mercantile as those already afforded the Great (Gay?) Emancipator and George “Who’s your Daddy?” Washington. Still, I try to look past the used car and discount electronics ads and take a little time to reflect. On Monday, I went back to his own unrehearsed reflections, uttered the night before he was murdered. I went to “Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches,” a project of American Radio Works. (If you haven’t been, go.)

As I held that text at emotional arms-length — fearing the painful memory of that awful next day — the lilt in and deliberate cadence of his deep, sonorous voice, fatigued by sadness but warm with the hope that only recklessly confident faith can bear, drifted into my mind’s ear. The flat, nonemotive words I read were sheet music to his symphony, so I had to listen, again. I did.

I was overcome. Again.

I grew up white in a sleepy, little Northwestern town dominated by one religion. (And it warn’t Catholic nor Baptist, neither; let’s just say that at the time it involved the “mark of Ham, son of Cain.”) Segregation was functional and genteel; there was one black family that worshipped and attended school with us. We were cordial and each kept to our own. If they were joined in our parents’Anglo-Irish/Arab/Armenian/Plains-Saxon effort to defeat the Mormons by flat outpopulating them, they didn’t show up at their bridge parties and alcohol-and-nicotine raves to co-conspire. “Colored Town” was the politest euphemism for where they lived and socialized — in some equivalent degree of comfort, I supposed. The only discrimination I’d heard of in my family was the time in Oregon when a neighbor there rang the bell with a petition to keep Mackerel Snappers out of the neighborhood; my Mother ordered her off the porch, and unkindly.

We were happily and dumbly mired in the Amos ‘n’ Andy status quo ante in my boyhood. We would listen, then watch (after the parents knuckled under and traded our upright piano for a TV in 1956) and laugh as eye-rolling Eddie Anderson bested Jack Benny every time. Marian Anderson had not registered on my Hit Parade. When Ed Sullivan brought us the likes of John Bubbles, the Davises, and Hines, Hines, and Dad, my laconic Dad would pay them the compliment of: “Those colored boys sure can move!” There was no minstrel-show irony, nor a whiff of condescension. A Yankee fan, he nonetheless admired Jackie Robinson (though a hated Dodger), anyone else who could hit and field like him, and he encouraged his own boys to emulate them.

“…Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world…”

The day Rosa Parks was arrested for resting her feet I was seven years old and hypnotized by Christmas. The following day, without checking with me first, the 25-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church launched the Montgomery bus boycott.

There was the clinical testament to slavery in the grammar school history texts of the time — which without more was every bit as remote as muskets and powdered wigs. It was Mark Twain’s treatment, using Tom, Huck, Pap, and Jim to drag the viscera and entrails out for closer examination, that first caught my attention. At that age, I assume I avoided being overtroubled by reminding myself variously that it was a time past and, anyway, just a couple of stories. All enemies, foreign and domestic, shrank before Sin and its reward, Hell. Entering public high school, my conscious picked up a few more blacks as classmates and team-mates. Still, if there was such a thing as injustice it didn’t live where I did.

“…I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world…”

We sixth graders spend the first two months of the 1960 Fall term wearing out our prayer bones every Friday afternoon, praying for victory for Notre Dame on Saturday and for Senator Kennedy in November. The prompt celestial response made us giddy in our Roman Catholicism. This was our first year in uniforms, and my best friend and I had been called to defend our faith against the pagan infidels more than once on the 13-block walk home. We’d overheard our parents describe the anti-papist calumnies whispered against the dashing Bostonian. “What’s the big deal?” we wondered. Our pastor was a Southie and he treated us altar boys like demigods. There was a sense things were turning.

October 1, 1962: Ninth Grade, back in public school. Having displaced the Great Books at the center of our culture, our black-and-white Zenith brought James Meredith; Ross Barnett; Bobby Kennedy; 5,000 federal marshals and troops; and a mob of angry Mississippians into our living room. I watched in silent horror as those pale, blurred faces disfigured by hatred flashed and bobbed in a sea of assault and masked obscenities. Turning to my father for some explanation, I saw that he was as slack-jawed as I. I don’t remember him ever using the word “colored” after that.

“…And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing, ‘Over my head I see freedom in the air…’”

1963: Dr. King, like St. Paul, corresponding from jail; “Bull” Connor’s dogs and firehoses — again, those awful faces; Medgar Evers murdered. Martin in the middle, all the while, counseling, cajoling, standing fast. I came home from football practice on August 28 to see the Reverend stand before the effigy of a president martyred for his people and sing — Dr. King did not merely speak, he made music — his vision for a Nation, true and just, to 200,000 upturned faces, calling and swaying around the Reflecting Pool. I’ve never seen the like of it, before or since. It was the Sermon on the Mount — he spoke to all of us, embraced and lifted us up. It was fire and steel — conviction, steadfastness, justice. It was milk and honey — mercy, forgiveness, peace. He became the Shepherd’s prelate for all peoples that day, reaching deep into all Americans with open hearts, regardless of pigmentation.

Next week: Apotheosis…


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