Memory, imagination and the passing of time all seem to create new realities. These then become legends and myths. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain what is truth and what has become mythical. In a few instances fighting over such distinctions does not really matter. For it is my belief that while the truth reveals facts – legends and myths speak of a period's zeitgeist along with a significant person’s, or event’s, meaning for future generations. All of this brings me to Martin Luther King Jr.
The inexorable passage of time can remove many names from recollection. For some, however, their memories morph into truths as well as legends. Our nation has been built on many of those legends – thus creating a sense of national lore. Fifty years ago Martin Luther King cemented himself into that lore. His speeches, marches, time spent in prison, and advocacy for nonviolence, all add to the portrait we now have of one of the world's greatest leaders. He didn't do it alone. He was part of a movement. But, Martin Luther King has become a powerful symbol for Civil Rights and nonviolence.
I write this piece from two perspectives. The first, from that of a child soon to emerge into adolescence. The second, from a man in the autumn of his years. Both views contain myths. Both views contain truths. Combined, both views hopefully capture the impact Martin Luther King has had on people over time. The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington reminds us of how far we have come and how far we have to go.
In many ways the five-year period 1963 through 1968 proved to be "the best of times and the worst of times." It was a time that began with Camelot, promises of the moon and dreams. It was a time that was also mired by assassinations, Vietnam and much racial strife.
I was 9 years old when Martin Luther King made his famous speech in Washington. Back then I had yet to develop any real awareness of race. Sure, I had a few African American buddies. Sure, a bunch of my sports heroes (Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown and Willie Mays) were black. However, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and Medgar Evers were not familiar names for most kids growing up in my neighborhood. I was not aware of the segregation. I was not aware of blacks using separate bathrooms, being denied voting access and their not being allowed entrance into certain colleges. Nine-year-old kids spend much of their time chasing baseballs and butterflies. Change was just around the corner.
Fifty years ago I distinctly remember speaking with my Aunt Betty about a young man who wrote the song titled "Blowin' in the Wind." Aunt Betty would eventually buy the Peter, Paul and Mary version which she played for me numerous times. She also explained that it was an anthem for the Civil Rights movement – which of course led to a barrage of questions from a curious little kid. Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" asked us how long it would take for people to start treating one another with dignity. Young, old, black, white, male, female, all began asking these type questions.
For many Baby Boomers, awareness of social concerns took a quantum leap with the assassination of President Kennedy. It was one of those "where were you when" moments. It seems as though historical issues began falling like dominos in lightening fashion. Every night the TV news would detail topics that today fill the history books. Again, the best and worst of times. Civil Rights, Vietnam, women's concerns, the Beatles, a Cold War, Arab-Israeli combat, nuclear threats, astronauts, etc., were a mere sampling of the period. Martin Luther King stood at the forefront of this tumultuous era.
Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. I remember that moment clear as day. It occurred at a time when the Boston Celtics were playing the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA playoffs. It was Chamberlain vs. Russell – the greatest rivalry in sports at the time. (It should also be noted that in 1964 the Celtics had become the first team to field an all-black starting line-up.) Needless to say MLK's death put such things in a proper perspective. A man known for nonviolence was gunned down in the midst of supporting sanitation workers. He was 39 years old.
Jefferson told us that we were all endowed with inalienable rights. Lincoln warned of a house divided. Martin Luther King, an equal of each as a wordsmith, exhorted our nation to dream. Words can have immense power. When issued by genius they create visions that bring people together. With Lincoln looking on and Jefferson so very near Martin Luther King called on our 'higher angels'. While I have often read of our third and 16th presidents – getting to see and hear Martin Luther King was something to treasure.
Sometimes we confuse Martin Luther King's call for non-violence with passivity. He was the opposite of passive. In fact, he was angry, courageous and outspoken. When I hear his words today they still resonate. He continues to inspire though his feet have not touched this earth since 1968. No, Martin was not passive. He spoke up for the poor. He spoke against the Viet Nam war. If he were here today I wonder what his views on Wall Street, Drones and 'Stand Your Ground' might be? Like Gandhi and Mandela, he was able to speak truths that could humble. It takes a great deal of love for your fellow man to walk the path he chose.
Fifty years have passed since August 28, 1963. Some things have changed for the better over that span. There is still much work to be done. The world gets smaller each day and the need for us to get along is more necessary than ever. Getting us to dream was Martin Luther King's gift to mankind. All of us working together to make that dream come true will be our gift to generations on the horizon. It is still up to us to reach the mountaintop. Let us not reduce this complex man to a historic dreamer however. He was someone who called for action. He was someone who confronted our nation's conscience. King's dream was more a demand than anything else. In many ways he was demanding justice.
Edwin M. Stanton was credited with saying that Lincoln now "belongs to the ages." Perhaps in the future people will say that "the ages belong to the ideals of Martin Luther King." We are all better off because off this special human being.
Bob Houghtaling is the Director of the East Greenwich Drug Program.