Let’s celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today—and tomorrow’s inauguration—with a story about King that’s powerful precisely because it is “just” one woman’s story. America is a tapestry of such stories. You have your own, too. Send us a note with your memory, please!
If you’d like to talk about the values surrounding these powerful days of transformation, visit Dr. Wayne Baker at OurValues.org where, every day, he welcomes reader comments.
Finally, after reading about Judy Neri here, don’t miss our “Care To Read More?” resources at the end of the story. Especially if you’re off work today, marking this milestone — we’ve prepared a richly reflective array of stories, photos, prayers and insights for you. And we do want to hear from you!
HERE IS …
OF HOT DOGS,
AND THE REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING
BY JUDY NERI
When my brother and sister and I were children in elementary school, Mom would take us downtown twice a year to Hecht’s department store in Baltimore to buy our back-to-school or summer-camp clothes. Each of us got to go separately with Mom and the ritual outing included lunch in the department store restaurant. The child’s menu included hot dogs and ice cream sundaes, plus special time alone with our remarkable mother. After lunch we got to choose—more or less—our clothes.
On one such outing, wearied by too many decisions and the heat, ubiquitous even in Hecht’s air-conditioned haven, I remember feeling cranky and very thirsty. “Mom,” I wailed, tugging on her arm, “I’m so thirsty, stop, I’m going to die if I don’t have some water!” And on I whined.
Mom stopped, sighed, and looked all around. Then she took me by the hand over to a very simple fountain in the corner of the department store. “Drink, child,” she said, and I drank, surprised that the water was not cold and fresh as in most of the fountains in the store.
When I had drunk enough, she said, “Look, Judy, at the sign over the fountain.”
I read: “Colored Only.”
I asked, “But, what does that mean?”
She looked at me sadly and intensely. “That this is the only water fountain colored people can drink from,” she answered. “That, Judy, is an evil sign and don’t you ever forget it.”
I remember that episode as my first political memory, and it never left me. Like many others of my generation, I became active in the civil rights movement and marched for racial equality. Ours was a Jewish family and we celebrated Passover, the festival of not only the matzoh and macaroons I loved as a kid, but of freedom from slavery.
The Passover Seder brought a festive gathering of family and friends. But the political situation had grown increasingly tense. Already in 1955, when I was in high school, Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of the bus, and the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott had begun—all 382 days of it. Soon, everyone knew the name of Martin Luther King, who led the boycott and whose house was bombed. Stories of demonstrations filled the news.
I learned in 1959, when in college, that he had visited India and worked out more clearly his adaptation of Gandhi’s principle of nonviolent persuasion. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he argued (citing St. Augustine, St. Thomas and the Jewish theologian Martin Buber) that individuals have a moral right and a responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
When I came back from college for Passover I persuaded my family that we should include “We Shall Overcome” among the songs of our Seder, and that we should stop for a moment to compare the ancient story to the modern one. It was not a hard sell, given my mother’s and father’s strong sense of justice. My father, a doctor, had fled Nazi Germany when he was not allowed to practice even in the Jewish Hospital in Berlin. So it was that “We Shall Overcome” took its place beside “America the Beautiful” at the end of the Seder.
Like many college students of that time, I was deeply moved by King’s struggle to end segregation, to gain for blacks (the term that took the place in those days of the derogatory “Negroes” or the worse “n”-word) the right to vote, the freedom to enjoy basic labor and civil rights, and increasingly economic justice.
Marches followed in Albany, Georgia (1961 and 1962), and in Birmingham, Alabama (1963). Also that year, Medgar Evers was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan—and still the Rev. Martin Luther King urged his followers to adhere to peaceful resistance to injustice. I was in Italy in the summer of 1963, meeting my future in-laws, when King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but we cheered from afar and celebrated when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. These events provided the political momentum for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting both segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education and employment. It was followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, written to eliminate literacy tests and other barriers to the right to vote. In ten years of struggle, Martin Luther King had made amazing progress toward making this country a place where “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
As I was finishing college and beginning graduate school, the Vietnam War came increasingly to the fore as a public issue, as U.S. involvement there deepened. After much research and heart searching, the activist generation of which I was a part opposed the war as it had segregation. Martin Luther King did so as well, as early as 1965, and in 1967, he gave his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In it he said that the United States was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” By that, he did not mean to imply support for communism, which he firmly rejected, but for the rights of the poor worldwide. But King’s broadened agenda lost him much support in the press and in the country generally, and it diluted the thrust of his nonviolent civil rights movement.
King went to Chicago in 1968 to work with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy for a “Poor People’s Bill of Rights,” in which he called for a fairer reconstruction of society, a campaign which met vitriolic resistance. In the spring in 1968 he went back south to Memphis, to support a strike of black sanitary public works employees for better wages and equal pay to that of their white coworkers.
It was with anxiety in our hearts that we heard Martin Luther King say in his “I’ve Been to the Mountain” speech, “Longevity has its place, but I am not concerned with that now.” We knew he was tired, and we knew that many forces in the society would be happy to see him disappear. He went on to say that he had been to the mountain and seen the Promised Land. “I may not get there,” he said, “but… we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
The following evening I went to a screening at the University of Maryland of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” When the film was over, someone came to the front of the theater and announced that the Reverend Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
People sobbed and screamed. I somehow made my way home, crying, realizing that the story of Jesus I had just watched on the screen had been repeated yet again.
But the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King left a profound legacy for our country and for the world. We must never forget the words of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
MEET JUDY: Read more about her work as a poet and her career as a scholar and teacher. (This short biography of the writer also includes a link to get a copy of her most recent collection of poetry.)
EAST-WEST CONNECTIONS: In her story today, Judy mentions the influence of Gandhi in King’s work. Starting on Sunday, we began sharing a series of stories about these ’round-the-world civil rights from Asia to America and back to Asia again. You’ll find that special series in our Web site honoring the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month.
SHARE IN AN INCLUSIVE PRAYER: We’ve commissioned an inclusive prayer for people to share, pass around or reprint. Pray along with many of our readers, will you?
ALSO TODAY: Do you know the real story behind Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech?
Today, we’re sharing with you a rarely seen version of Dr. King’s
historic speech — before he decided to toss out the final section of his prepared remarks and, instead, recited the stirring “dream” lines. Read what King’ speech might have been, if he hadn’t been inspired to set aside his own plans.
The Library of Congress has superb educational resources. The lunch-counter-protest photo (shown above today) is one example. You can see the entire UPI photo as it rolled out into newsrooms across the nation and read lots more about the story in the Library of Congress educational page.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Library’s own capsule description: “In 1960 four freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro strolled into the F. W. Woolworth store and quietly sat down at the lunch counter. They were not served, but they stayed until closing time. The next morning they came with twenty-five more students. Two weeks later similar demonstrations had spread to several cities, within a year similar peaceful demonstrations took place in over a hundred cities North and South. At Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, the students formed their own organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). The students’ bravery in the face of verbal and physical abuse led to integration in many stores even before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Here’s a lengthy index of additional Library of Congress resources on African-American history stretching from the era of slavery through the civil-rights movement.
The Library even offers a full-scale image of the original sheet music to “We Shall Overcome” by Silphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger. (The image above is a small detail from that sheet music.)
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