A Fly On The Wall

Before we dumpster dive back into our political system, I think a story might be in order for Martin Luther, King, Jr. Day. Happily the president took time out of his grueling day of watching the national championship game in Atlanta to expand the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change (“The King Center). Well worth it to add the additional buildings and begin to flesh out the network that functioned with and around Dr. King. ‘not sure we had to lose hundreds of thousands of acres of other national park land on the other end, but I doubt there’s any gold or oil or shale rock to be found in Atlanta’s inner city so “lucky for them.”

My story is a personal one. Sometimes life puts one in places that are both extraordinary and unexpected. I was hired to be the southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee. I had a choice. I could move to Houston and report to someone in Dallas or move to Atlanta and report to the national office. My training in political science made Atlanta an obvious choice besides I was neither a Houston kinda guy nor one who did well with micro-management. Atlanta it was. As part of 8 some years there and many, “hold cow!” experiences, I got to be a fly on the wall of the King Center that had just been established by Mrs. King as a living, breathing memorial to  her husband’s work, which would continue in spite of his murder.

In a complicated intergroup relations chess game, I found myself appointed to the advisory board, passing judgment on who would be its first professional executive director, becoming a trusted enough confident of that person that I saw and heard a lot of things someone my age, 27, and my color, white, never would have been privy to. The capper was being asked to speak from the pulpit of the famed Ebeneezer Baptist Church at a weekend long conference. To me, this was a big deal, a very big deal.

There are events in one’s life that are so magnified that one remembers the sights in Technicolor and the sounds in Dolby Stereo. And that are so overwhelming that one becomes a by-stander to one’s own actions, sort of like being in a sound-proof, glass room that allowed sight but no sound, a sense of what was happening but no sensations to go with it. This was definitely an event that fell into the latter category.

I remember but one thing. It isn’t who was in the audience, though a lot of famous people were there along with the media. It isn’t who introduced me, possibly Coretta (Mrs. King), but I honestly don’t remember. It isn’t even  what I said, though I prepared meticulously, spoke, well, and later was heaped upon with compliments. I have no idea what took place that entire day of which my speech was but a part. I only remember what happened before I spoke, and that was being preceded to the pulpit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. About him, his speech, his clothing, his posture I remember everything. And I remember one other thing. It was this thought: “How the hell am I ever going to follow that act?!?”

I’ve done a lot of public speaking in my life. Twice I have followed African American Baptist senior preachers to the pulpit. It’s nothing any speaker would choose to do unless one were another senior African-American Baptist preacher. I was left with several impressions. One was that MLK, Jr. Day should have been on Father’s Day because after being exposed to “Daddy King” as he was known, it was obvious the son owed much to his father. In fact great a speaker as the son was, he couldn’t hold a vocal chord to the father once the father got wound up and going.

And that is another memory, the capturing of the audience. Daddy King was not dressed in his Sunday best, or if he was he didn’t have much of a wardrobe. Nor did he approach the pulpit with the commanding air and posture seen in so many famous preachers, Billy Graham to name one. If you like movies, Elmer Gentry would be another. Daddy King was elderly, he had a bad hip. He sort of ambled and rambled towards the mike, one moment wincing from pain, another signaling with a smile or wave recognition of a particular person in some pew. People were rooting him to the pulpit and the feeling was he “just made it.” Nor did he get up behind that mike, put both hands to each side of it, and speak so every syllable jumped out of the sound system. No, he stood up alongside the pulpit, crooked his arm, and put his elbow on its platform sort of like he was leaning on an old familiar piece of furniture, one in the family so long, it’s like an old friend or old shoe. It was holding him up, it seemed.

He cleared his throat, he continued acknowledging someone over here and there while he began to warm into what he was saying, this man who had seen for a lifetime the war that his son had gone out to fight and never returned from. He spoke about evil. He spoke about injustice. He spoke about redemption and salvation. He spoke about his son’s work and “carryin’ on.” But it wasn’t what he said; it was how he said it.

As his warmth turn to heat and the heat got turned up, magic happened. That slow, rambling beginning picked up speed. That not-so-clear voice became snappy as a snare drum and at times boomed like it had turned into a bass drum. His rumpled old body stiffened to fill out the rumpled old clothing, He winced no more from pain appearing like Samson as he now moved center of the pulpit took hold of  its microphone while at he same time taking hold of his audience.

I assume he spoke for about 45 minutes. It seemed like 5. At the end he was faced with a standing, cheering congregation. He was calm, strong, and in command. The congregation was dripping with sweat and exhausted from what had been both pulled from them and pushed into them.

He exited the stage and with a wink whispered to me, “They’re all yours” that wink saying, “I may be old son, but give me a microphone and a message and the congregation is always all mine.”

I salute you both, father and son.


This is regular Sunday outpouring of Bill Gralnick’s mind in his “atleastfrommyperspective” blog.

More outpourings can be found in his two volumes of essays:
“Mirth, Wind, and Ire” and “More Mirth, Wind and Ire.”

They can be found at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/682523 and http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/758411. Both books can be found on Kindle, Nook, and most other electronic reading devices by searching the reading lists by author or title. Each book is a steal at $2.99.

Read!! It’s good for you and it’s good for me….

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