Sunday, January 20, 2008

Celebrating Martin

Over the years, I’ve read and re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s books, particularly Strength to Love, which I’ve bought at least a dozen times, but at the moment I have no copy of it, because there were always people I wanted to give it to. His brave, smart, gracious, humane approach to effecting social change has given permanent shape to my views of politics and life itself. Every year I watch King: From Montgomery to Memphis, the best documentary about his life, marvel anew at this wise man, and thank God that I was privileged to live in his time.

It breaks my heart that King has become a postage stamp in black history, turned into a Reader’s Digest-style caricature that completely fails to showcase his brilliance, humor, and the doubts that strengthened his faith. It infuriates me that he’s been relegated to African-American history when in truth he is one of the greatest Americans of any race in all of American history – an idea supported by the fact that King was killed when his vision began to take him beyond black civil rights into an outspoken anti-Vietnam War position and a conviction that economic (class) reform and a commitment to human rights in all areas was essential to democracy.

I grew up in the sunlight of King’s work and words, so my thoughts and feelings about him have become an integral part of my personal memories. Images, sounds, words, zoom through my mind like a music video, hard quick-cuts and gauzy slow-motion set to Joan Baez’s version of We Shall Overcome.

I was nine years old when I first became aware of him, a young handsome man saying remarkable, important things regularly chronicled in the pages of Jet, Ebony and The Amsterdam News, copies of which always covered our coffee table.

I was 11 in August, 1963, as I watched the seminal March on Washington on a tiny TV in my room; I was too angry to watch with my parents in the living room, because they had been too worried about “trouble” to attend and they wouldn’t let me go without them [as part of a large group that included a friend, her parents and other kids and adults]. At the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech, I ran into the living room, tearful and furious. “Why aren’t we there?,” I yelled at my black father and white mother, “we of all people, why aren’t we there?

I was 16 on April 4, 1968, when news of King’s assassination started circulating around my high school. I stood in front of the school gates with my friends, my eyes closed against hot tears, my fists clenched, unable to move and not knowing what to do. A couple of months later, I flew down to Washington DC in a small private plane (somewhat to my embarrassment) with other Eugene McCarthy supporters. We had all helped organize the New York faction for the Poor People’s Campaign. Later that day in Resurrection City, I found myself serendipitously just a few feet from Coretta Scott King. I was excited yet confused; something vital was missing – of course, it was Martin.

I was in my early 20s when my maternal grandmother died. At her graveside, when the rabbi invited people to recount their memories of her, my father spoke up: “She was always kind to me, always treated me like a son,” he said. “But the memory I treasure most is of the day Martin Luther King was killed. She was living with us then, and that night my wife and daughter and I were going to a local church for a community service. ‘I want to go, too,’ she said, ‘he was a good man.’ And that night, this little old Jewish woman who had never set foot in a church in her life stood with us and linked arms and sang We Shall Overcome. I’ll never forget that.” I’ll never forget that my father said this.

Later in 1968, my mother, who was quite a good amateur painter, made a portrait of King from the photo that illustrates this post, which had been on the front page of The New York Times. Her art teacher fiddled around with it and somehow made King look a little like Adam Clayton Powell. For years, we called this painting Martin Luther Powell and Adam Clayton King. It hangs in my dining area, a daily, beloved reminder of both my mother and her subject.

I was in my late 20s when I participated in organized efforts to have Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday. A friend was staying with me a year or so before the holiday was instituted and in the early morning of that January 15th, we propped open the door of my apartment and repeatedly blasted Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday to You into the hallway. The day before the first official holiday, during a time when I worked on publicity for a major pop diva, she and her pianist came to my apartment to rehearse her own version of Happy Birthday, which she performed at a special ceremony the next day. I was at that ceremony, too, standing near the front, and when Mrs. King made her entrance, she made a beeline right for me and shook my hand. I can only assume she was looking for a friendly face in the crowd to start out with and I felt enormously honored.

King’s death derailed this country’s forward movement; sometimes, I fear, irrevocably. How different things might have been had he lived to continue his mission! We can only hope that today’s voices for change hear his voice inside their heads. We need more than a holiday, we need a Kingian miracle.

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