Martin Luther King is a man I hold in highest respect. Once I wrote a letter of protest about an issue to the local newspaper and wavered for days before sending it. As I wavered, I thought about MLK, coming to understand in a small way how difficult it is to make a public protest about an issue. To lead demonstrations, marches, public protests, to encounter withering rebuke and scorn, to endanger oneself and one’s family, to sacrifice anonymity for “notoriety”—-it is so much easier to fly under the radar and let someone else be out in front. And my small protest was a tiny candle to the massive sun of King’s work for equality and justice.
As a child and teen in the 1950’s, I read about MLK and watched some of his marches on TV and at the movies. I saw marchers being hosed and attacked with dogs and billy clubs. Since I lived in suburban and then small town America, in lily white areas, the nightmare images seemed to come from some other world. Surely, this was not the America I heard about at school and church, where all humans are equal and jesus loves all the little children–red, yellow, black, white. I came to have the profoundest respect for MLK and his movement. Some of my relatives did not care for him at all, so I always heard the dark stories and comments. I cannot say I had the courage of my convictions. Since I do not like to attend large sports events or concerts where there are masses of people, public demonstrations are not my thing. Once though, back in the mid-60’s, we learned though a co-worker of my first husband, the wife of the head of the local NAACP, that MLK would be leading a protest march in Louisville. Kids just out of college, we decided to go watch the march, which took place on 4th Street in Louisville. It was rather a lark for us, though my profound respect for MLK was the impetus. We stood on the sidewalk, cheering as the protesters came down the street in the characteristic hands-linked-across-the-front manner. Not having enough nerve to step into the street to march with them, we began walking down the sidewalk alongside the march, in support. There were angry hecklers around us, some shouting venomous abuse. Suddenly I noticed that several large young black men had surrounded us, protecting us as we walked along. Realizing that we were supporters, they surrounded and stayed with us. I had not considered that we might be in danger, but I was very grateful for their protection. It was a thoughtful and love-filled gesture. To this day, I regret that I did not have the courage to march in the street.
I remember watching that glorious “I have a Dream” speech, given from the Lincoln Monument. MLK was a marvelous orator with a powerful, silky voice that soared with the poetic cadences of his dreams for America’s children. Many years later, a coach from USC called me a number of times, recruiting Jim. Coaches who are recruiting don’t call the players—they call the mothers, so I spent several years chatting with basketball coaches, one of the more bizarre episodes in my life, considering my total lack of enthusiasm for athletics. This coach, George Raveling, called a number times in 1984. He told me the story of standing with MLK at the Lincoln Monument during that famous demonstration, as a volunteer security guard. When MLK finished speaking, he turned and handed the speech to Raveling. I am sure he told that story to lots of mothers; it certainly impressed me.
A copy of MLK’s speech and long article about that famous demonstration hung in my classroom for a number of years. Some of my students read it, but mostly it just hung there, another “liberal” comment from the flakey old 1960’s era teacher. One day, one of my “graduated” students came back to visit, bringing along a friend from college, a young black man. He was noticeably cool to me, barely acknowledging the introduction. While his friend chatted with me, he wandered around the room. I watched, wondering what would happen when he saw the yellowed MLK article. He stopped, read the entire page, turned, came over to my desk, sat down, and began talking as if we were old friends. I am not so naive that I think America’s rampant racial hostility can be overcome by such incidents, but I did think how warming it was to know that once more MLK had bridged a gap, allowing two people to see each other, not as a black man and a white woman from seemingly hostile camps, but as two humans with mutual interests and admirations.
Of note, too, is the fact that my mother, my role model for all that is good, loving, and gracious, one of the most devout Christians I have ever met, was a devoted admirer of MLK.