So the anniversary has come and gone. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been raised from the dead for about a week and now it remains to be seen if that resurrection will have any lasting effect on what he stood for and died for. In listening again to the soaring oratory and watching again the searing pictures of the day, two thing struck me. I had forgotten that he died at age 39. You know the old saw about “If the Queen had…..” In Yiddish the expression is translated as, “if “grandma had wheels, she’d be a baby carriage.” 39. Imagine had he lived until 70 or 80. But he didn’t. Just thirty-nine.
The other was a negative commentary about President Reagan making his birthday a national holiday. The commentator said it was bad for the movement, like putting a bow on a package and giving it away. He said that whether the president meant it that way or not, the birthday was the grand apology from the nation to the family and the country and in a sense said, “Ok, we’ll move on and once a year give a tip of the hat.” If you look at the large issues like jobs, housing, condition of schools, unemployment, wage parity, you see King wasn’t close to done or close to achieving what needed to be achieved. He knew better than we that he’d not get to the “Promised Land.” I wonder if he died knowing that his people might never get there. What a terrible thought to go out with after what he’d already been through.
All of this brought me back to my days in Atlanta beginning in 1973. The father had outlived the son, always an awful injustice. The family was having squabbles as to the “who” and the “how” of it all. Corretta wanted the mantel, but would the many men in a certain pecking order behind Dr. King give it up to her? Could she handle the whip-saw changes occurring in black America, the Black Power Movement and the Nation of Islam? And if she could or not, would any of them have the nerve not to recognize her as “the leader?”
The “how” was simply money. How would enough be raised and how would it be used. The plans were set for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change. It began as a humble operation in a big old house. It was soon clear that Mrs. King could not afford to travel, speak, sit and administer all at once. Oh yes, she was also a mother. The center needed an executive director and staff and a board. It had for practical purposes to include whites and blacks because after all wasn’t that what it was all about–integration? I happened to be in a job–regional director of the American Jewish Committee–working for a group of people well known to have made hard business decisions and taken great economic and physical risks to help Dr. King–some more willingly than others, but none the less… The Jews of Atlanta had to be included.
So there I was a 27 year old kid from Brooklyn, NY representing a community less than a decade past its own trauma of the Klan blowing a hole in its largest synagogue, a community with living relatives on both sides of the Leo Frank lynching still “staring ugly” at one another. I had taken a job that put me in the spotlight of history. I was asked to help structure the non-profit because I worked for the oldest human relations non-profit in America. I was asked to be on the committee to help find an executive director and then to be “available” for whatever. Being a white northerner I learned quickly that behind the scenes was the best place to be.
I learned quickly that Mrs. King was a wounded woman, not very trusting and not very approachable by those with whom she did not have a real relationship. I guess having your husband shot on a hotel balcony in broad daylight will do that to you. How, even in those days do you fathom it? Einstein mused, “There are two things that are here forever–the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.” I was not one of those and to my regret I never became one. When she did walk by you just knew it wasn’t appropriate to “chat her up.” She was a presence and to me an unapproachable one. But she allowed for me, maybe as a thank you, to have one of the great memories of my professional career.
I don’t clearly remember the occasion. I think it might have been the birthday of the Center. A conference was planned to span several days. There would be tours of the small but growing center, there would be workshops on non-violence and the other lesser known imports to Dr. King’s work. It would all end on a Sunday at the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church. There would be, I think three or four speakers. I would be one of them. And I would follow Dr. King’s father, known to all as “Daddy” King.
Now is there a person alive who has not heard at least one speech by Dr. King, Jr? The power, the glory–unmatchable. I’ve heard some spectacular speakers who have come out of the black Baptist and Methodist traditions. King was the poster model for them all. But I sit here to tell you, the master was his father. I recall it like it was yesterday.
The church itself, except for what it represented was not much. It wasn’t very big at all and it wasn’t very impressive. It had a well-worn look to it. “Daddy” King was introduced and of course warmly received. He was an old man now and suffering the wounds of a parent who had lost his child. He weighed too much and his knees hurt. He dressed mostly like he hadn’t changed his suit in a week and maybe slept in it a few nights of the week he wore it. I can’t say he walked to the pulpit. I can only say somehow he got there. On his face was a look both of pain and pride. He was the eipitome of Robert Frost’s comment, “Everything I’ve learned about the world I can sum up in three words, it goes on.”
He sidled up to the pulpit, put his arm on it, and popped open the button on his jacket. He didn’t pull over the microphone. He was trained in the days before they were commonly available. He didn’t really need it. He knew how to get every decibel of his voice into every nook and cranny of that structure. He smiled over here and waved over there and began to say a few hellos and howdy’s and thanks, and then began to talk. But there seemed to be a pace to what he was saying, and that pace decidedly had begun to quicken. As it quickened I was reminded of a thunder storm, the sound of the thunder on the horizon and the change in its timber as it got closer and closer to me, the point where now it was booming.
Sitting behind him, I was enveloped in a rhetorical storm. When he was finished, he was spent but still spunky, winking at me with a sly, “OK, kid, it’s your turn.” A “Good luck with that….” wink. He let go of the pulpit, struggled a bit with balance and then trundled, Fred Sanford-like off the stage.
I’ve heard JFK twice in person and countless times on TV. I’ve heard Pope, now Saint, John Paul ll in person. I’ve heard Billy Graham 3 times in person and Jerry Falwell both live and electronically. Throw in Fidel Castro and Charles de Gaulle. The same oddity occurred with all that I think is common when you hear a great speaker at a great moment. I had no clue what they said, the theme maybe. A key phrase or so. That’s about it. And so it was with Daddy King. I was so mesmerized I had to be poked to move towards the podium. Fortunately I wasn’t winging it because without written remarks, which I often don’t use, I’m not sure I’d have remembered what I was going to say no less what he just said.
And I think that’s the point. What he said wasn’t what mattered. That he could say anything with any passion, that he could stand up son-less and say, “We still have leadership.” That he could generate passion and belief in the ultimate truth while feeling bereft of both–that’s leadership. And that’s why at least this time around, America will not be made great, but the King legacy will remain great. As Gandhi exhorted us, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
____________________________________________________________________________________________Every Sunday Bill Gralnick pours his heart out to you at: atleastfrommyperspectiveblog.wordpress.com
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