The sweet irony of Obama’s inauguration taking place the day after the annual national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King has escaped no one. It is one of those coincidences (like Adams and Jefferson both dying on the 50th anniversary of July 4) that shades the agnostic toward belief and will be remembered forever in our history.
King has been dead now for over forty years. There are many more people now living in this country who do not remember him, than do remember him from life. This being somewhat of a special King holiday, I have tried to gather my thoughts regarding the life of Dr. King, as I remember it growing up in a segregated or, in the final years of my youth, a semi-segregated society. No one who died in 1963 would recognize our society today. No one born after that date can really imagine what it was like, at least in the south. It goes without saying that there were no black children in my elementary school, despite the fact that Brown v. Board had been the law for almost five years when I started. The school district where I lived did what every school district in the south did, it came up with a series of transparent ways to try to delay the decision for as long as possible. In Houston, the fight was still going on in 1970. Having no black contemporaries, I obviously lived in an atmosphere where what I heard about King was at the very least filtered and at the most so biased by hatred as to be unacceptable as a rational human thought, even by a 10 year old.
For someone who was not there, it is impossible to understand the casualness of racism at the time. From probably second grade through at least 7th or 8th grade, I don’t think that a school day went by when I did not hear, several times epithets regarding African-Americans, although not necessarily directed at one and, amazingly enough, not always spoke with any hatred. The term “Nigger woman”, which would be unthinkable to use today, was used quite often in almost loving terms. “ I’m talking about Jane, she’s the nigger woman who has worked for us for years, she is part of the family.” But I would be lying if I said that a majority of times that word, or its other despicable synonyms, were used, it was said with anything other than the grossest contempt. That is why the word is now banished. Unlike many, I use the word itself when writing about it. To not use it, to call it the “n word” in my opinion, is not only a cowardly hiding from and covering up of the past, it does not give to the present the flavor of just how awful the word, and the times were.
At any rate, for a period of several years, I saw Dr. King on television many times. I am ashamed to admit that until I was about 14, I did not realize how important his work was. By the time I was 15 and a half he was dead, and I did understand what had been lost. For this I have the media to thank, certainly not my teachers or my friends. I’m sure, although I do not remember, that even my parents considered him a dangerous radical. This despite the fact that my father forbid the use of any prejudicial language by anyone in our house, and my mother used to laugh at small town people she knew who would get upset about the civil rights movement. King’s persistence changed life completely. The 1964 Civil Rights act, which demanded open accommodations for all people, did far more than the Brown decision in changing the thought process of the white race.
As King for saw, once people worked together, ate together and recreated together, fear and animosity began to vanish. It took 100 years for whites in the South to accept blacks on equal terms after the civil war, and it still had not been done. It took less than twenty for the south to accept blacks in every aspect of life after the Civil Rights Act was passed. People like me who lived when it would have been unthinkable for there to be racial harmony have lived to a time when it is unthinkable not to have it., King did that. I don’t discount Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson or anyone else, but nothing would have occurred without Dr. King. Only Washington and Lincoln in our national heritage stand with him as indispensible to the nation’s well being. Just those three.
In summary, the man was the very essence of leadership and what leadership and devotion can accomplish. It is fitting that his favorite hymn spoke to divine leadership. It is also a hymn which can be used proudly by any religion in the world, monotheistic or otherwise.
“Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light.
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me home. “ Thomas Dorsey, “Precious Lord”
Lead us all.