Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years Ago Today

Forty years ago today I was a nine-year-old going on ten-year-old boy living in the little house at 228 Memorial Drive in Barnesville, Georgia, which was (and is) situated about midway between Atlanta and Macon on U.S. Highway 41. That evening I was, as usual, watching the nineteen-inch black and white television set in our small den. The program I was watching was interrupted by a news bulletin in which it was reported that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

I lived a very sheltered and limited life. The fifteen mile trip to Griffin was a big deal. The fifty mile trip to Atlanta was downright mind-boggling. But the one place I had visited that was a long way away was Memphis. My parents had friends there. To me, Memphis was a place of exotic wonders like the zoo and the Lakeland amusement park and shopping malls and lots of traffic signals and their friends’ teenage daughter Marsha.

Now it had become the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. That made me sad.

I did not at that tender and more or less innocent age know a lot about Dr. King. I had heard of him but I didn’t understand the issues that mattered to him and to everybody else who was paying attention. But I learned something that night.

I learned about hate.

My mother and another adult member of our extended family were back in my parents’ bedroom. I think they were working at the sewing machine. I went back to the bedroom and told them, “They just said on the TV that Martin Luther King has been shot in Memphis.” Our relative formed a pistol with her hand, placed it against her temple, and said, “I hope they got him right there.” I don’t remember what my mother said.

Later that night, though, when Mama and I were alone, she said, “Mike, don’t you ever repeat what she said. That was wrong.” “I won’t,” I promised.

The next day, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Tenney, a good-hearted person, tried to talk to our class about what had happened in Memphis. Now, this was 1968 in a small town in the deep South. I attended Gordon Grammar School, which was the city public school. We children were living in ignorance of what was to come two years later when the desegregation of our public schools would commence. In 1968 we were still operating under the “freedom of choice” policy which meant that we had an all-black county school, Booker T. Washington School, an all-white county school located in the even smaller town of Milner, and the mostly white city school at Gordon. A handful of black parents did send their children to Gordon. There were one or two black children in my fourth grade class.

So it was that Mrs. Tenney talked with us. She asked something like, “What have you heard people say about Dr. King’s assassination?” I remembered my promise to my mother—briefly. Then I raised my hand and repeated what our family member had said. I don’t remember what Mrs. Tenney said in response, but I’m sure that she tried to say that such an attitude was wrong.

It never occurred to me how the words I repeated right out loud in that fourth grade classroom might have affected my black classmates.

It never occurred to me how different the discussions must have been that were going on at Booker T. Washington School, where there were no white students or teachers or administrators to utter the kind of hateful words that I repeated that morning.

My family member, whose finger I can still see pressed against her temple and whose vicious smile I can still see and whose words I can still hear, really did hate Dr. King. It was obvious.

Now I want to speak a difficult truth. While I doubt that many of the people around me would express such hatred for Dr. King, I can testify to the fact that many of the people that I know do not cherish his memory because they do not appreciate his work and his legacy.

I’m talking about white people, of course, and I can do that, because I am one.

I have to admit that the attitudes of some white folks toward Dr. King surprise me. Now, we all know that Dr. King was not a perfect man. He had his faults. So do we all. There are a few things that I wish those folks would remember, though.

One thing is that Dr. King’s mission was very much driven by his Christian commitment. Most if not all of the people I know who resent Dr. King consider themselves to be Christians. Well, he was their brother in the faith. He loved and served the same Jesus that they love and serve. Those of us who were adults back in his day should have been at the very least loving and praying for him. We need to see Dr. King’s work in the context of his Christian heritage and commitments.

A second thing is that Dr. King had right on his side. God knows that we still have a long way to go. Dr. King’s dream of a society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character is still far from realized. Statistics reveal that the black community is beset by tremendous problems, most of which are related to poverty. Nonetheless, America would never even have the chance to live up to her highest ideals of freedom and justice so long as equal rights under the law were not accorded to all of her citizens. People who follow Jesus and whose lives are guided by his teachings should care deeply about all human beings being treated as human beings.

A third thing is that Dr. King was the right man in the right place at the right time. During my ordination council interrogation, Dr. Carey T. Vinzant, the retired president of Tift College, asked me if the Apostle Paul could have done the work that he did for the Lord had he not had the education that he had. I stammered out an answer that I thought sounded pretty pious; it amounted to “I reckon that God could have done with Paul whatever he needed doing regardless of Paul’s education.” Dr. Vinzant smiled and said, “You may be right. But it seems to me that it was very important that Paul was educated in both the Jewish and Greek worlds since it was his special calling to translate the Jewish-based Christian faith for a Gentile audience.” Dr. Vinzant was right, of course.

Dr. King came along at a time when American society needed to face up to its racial divide and to its systematic discrimination against and disenfranchisement of a huge segment of its population. Because of his background, because of his natural gifts, because of his education, and especially, I believe, because of his commitment to nonviolent protest, Dr. King was the right man in the right place at the right time. I understand that as the Civil Rights movement progressed some young black leaders became disenchanted with Dr. King’s peaceful approach and advocated more direct and even violent action. I wonder if my friends in the white community who don’t like Dr. King have stopped to consider how much more difficult things could have been had he not taken the peaceful approach he did?

Race relations in the real world can be difficult. I know that. But we who are Christians should lead the way in this and in all matters that revolve, in the final analysis, around love. Dr. King saw and lived in the midst of a wrong and he tried to right it and he did so in a way that honored the Savior whom he served. Would that the same could be said about all of us.

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