Monday, January 18, 2016

Remembering Dr. King

Monday, January 18, 2016. Martin Luther King Day. It got much colder on Sunday, with snow showers moving in in late afternoon, accumulating on parked cars but not on the wet pavements and roadways.

It's a holiday here in the United States with many people home for the day. We take some of that time off here on the NYSD. However, we wanted to say something about Dr. King.

He's been on my mind often especially over the past couple of years not only because of the racial and political issues in the community, but in the world as well.

Looking through our archives, I found a Diary I'd written nine years ago on this holiday about Dr. King and his effect on my world. I knew he was a great preacher just from listening to him. But I never thought of him as religious in the sense of representing a certain dogma. I thought of him, and still think of him as a statesman in the human society. I wonder what he would be saying to all of us right now. I wonder how he would encourage us to live together in this darkening hour ...
August 28, 1963, under a nearly cloudless sky, more than 250,000 people, a fifth of them white, gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to rally for "jobs and freedom." The result became the landmark statement of civil rights in America.
1/15/07. Helping. Today is Martin Luther King Day. I am old enough to remember when Dr. King started his odyssey for Civil Rights back in the late '50s, early '60s. It was "Down There" or "Over There," and definitely "Not Here," in my world, so it was almost incomprehensible from my youthful vantage point.

My first year in college, there were political protest committees burgeoning to support and bring about Civil Rights legislation.  There were sit-ins, and marches, and heated meetings. I participated in none of them. I also didn't see their value or their potential impact. I read newspapers and Time Magazine, all of which reported these events and activities. They didn't see value or potential impact either. And politicians spoke of only one color: Red. I was ignorant. I don't know about the rest of them.

I was a Northern white boy, from a barely-getting-by working class family, in a community where I don't recall ever seeing a person of color who would have been, if and when,  referred to as a "colored" or a "Negro" or in the schoolbooks where "they" were called "slaves,"or the "n" word which I never used because I didn't like the sound of it on people's lips.
African-Americans kneel on sidewalk outside City Hall in Birmingham, Alabama protesting racial segregation. United Press International telephoto, 1963. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
Thinking back on it, it seems inconceivable (and therefore not true) that I never saw a person of color --  which would include Asians (then referred to as "Orientals" or "Japs" or "Fillipinos." Puerto Ricans were the closest I came to seeing another ethnicity other than my own Caucasian counterparts. And the Puerto Ricans were present only during the summertime when the tobacco farmers needed cheap labor to pick and haul the plants. Off-hours, they drank and got into episodes with the cops (or vice versa). Or so we were told. They were regarded as quite naturally lower on the ladder of life.

These expressions of bigotry weren't hotly declared. They were even rarely expressed, as if it had little to do with life outside Our Town, our street, our neighborhood.
Negro leaders ride bus. Associated Press photograph - 1956 December 21. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., agreed that Alabama's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. King celebrated by riding the bus seated next to a white man.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., behind bars in jail in St. Augustine, Florida. United Press International telephoto, 1962. Prints
and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
MLK on the cover of TIME.
In my father and mother's house there were references to dagos, ginnies, wops, spics, frogs, polacks (always preceded by "dumb"), Reds, DP's (displaced persons), who were often regarded as the worst of all, which meant Commies or Reds. And, oh yes, the Jews who might be called kikes or mockies (an earlier 20th century New York word), or yids.

My father, who was a Brooklyn born Irish-American used all of the above "names" in his conversation. Except, of course, the "fightin'" Irish. I don't recall his ever being confronted by anyone for his language either. Not that his day to day talk was peppered with those words. They  were not used frequently, because those to whom those names were directed were not present enough to provoke it.
Rev. Martin Luther King congratulated by Crown Prince Harald, (left) and King Olav after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, as Mrs. King looks on. United Press International photograph, 1964 Dec 10. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
As children we were most familiar with the word polack in my hometown. The "dumb Polacks" lived on the other side of the bridge, on the other side of town. They were the day to day bottom rung of the social ladder in this small New England town which bore as much resemblance to Peyton Place as any other.

Years later when my eldest maternal aunt died, another aunt, my favorite, told me in passing that "they'd put in the paper that she was born in Poland." Oh? And was she, I asked. Yes. "But we don't want anybody to know."  And  why? "Because of all those (Polish) jokes." My aunt, as I said, my favorite aunt, was a very sweet woman whose affection meant everything to me when I was a child. But she was ignorant of her prejudice. We were all ignorant. In fact, she was lying about herself which she had learned to hold in disrespect. Many of us still are. Maybe most.  Ignorance is self-perpetuating poverty.
Martin Luther King's words still hold a stunning power and grace more than 30 years after his death in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Above: Photograph by Flip Schulke.
Dr. Martin Luther King started having his greatest impact when the Kennedy Administration apparently began to listen to his message. Then I began to hear and see. For the first time in my life. I was not alone. That March on Washington was packed with people like me, although I did not march. The specter of Vietnam, the murder of JFK, were elements that conjoined with the words and activities of Dr. King, in my developing consciousness. He was my teacher.

Looking back it is astounding to think that that kind of leadership, full of wisdom, courage, compassion and brotherly love, was so powerfully present in a man in his early 30s. All of those qualities of the man have been enhanced by the perspective of history. One man effected the changing of the consciousness with his message.

His mission was far far from completed when they killed him. But his legacy carries the power on and will serve to inspire others. When it does. It is very difficult for us to give up our prejudices. And prejudice/bigotry can be found in everyone; it is very democratic. It seems to be part of the human condition. It is not something that we intend to do but only something that we learn by rote. For many of us our prejudices provide much needed definition. To feel prejudice automatically assigns oneself with authority. But only in a know nothing world.
President Lyndon B. Johnson gives Dr. Martin Luther King one of the pens used in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the background are Rep. Claude Pepper (center) and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. United Press International photograph, 1965. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
He was prescient and a brilliant orator, it is mollifying to consider what he'd be saying if he were alive today --  now a much older man, made wiser by the years of experience, possibly even a sometime victim of that the adulation his greatness evokes in us.

Very often when I ride the subway in New York, I play "count the faces and the races" because New York remains the center of the civilization and its purported progress. I am witness to that. If the car is not too crowded, I can usually get to 25 or 26 before the next stop. Then I count the white faces in the total. On an average, it's six or eight. Then I  try to count the various faces of color. But it's impossible because the young (children/teens/20-something faces riding the subway in the 21st century are wearing the ethnicity of the planet (including white) on all their faces. We are all together now, one or none. That was Dr. King's message not to just "his people," but to all of us. We are all his people.
L. to r.: Dr. King with school children in 1966; Martin Luther King Jr.'s children say their final goodbyes to their loving father.
As I was ruminating on the long life that Dr. King never had, JH happened to send me an excerpt from a speech Dr. King delivered here in New York in at Riverside Church:

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam.

If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.

It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people.

The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
 

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