Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again. It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.
It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.
The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.
I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world. Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.
I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee. She happened to be African American. Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.
I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived. I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another. This separation made my trip all the more startling. It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.
I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest. Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish. It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong. People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us. But not with us.
I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me. I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners. I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting. I have no tales like those. I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation. But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently. His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him. He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people. Just treated them alike.
My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones. My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world. We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go. We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.
It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin. But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident. It is one thing to change laws. It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws. And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.
The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me. And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us. What are they seeing? How are we doing? Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?
In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it. Someone is watching, always. So write the script you want remembered. It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evil. I was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.
So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table. Everyone.
I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.” It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate. But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.
Buy the song here
An unfinished cup of coffee
By an unmade bed
Near the concrete balcony
Where a man of God is dead
Looking through an old window
See the painful past
Forever frozen at the last
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.