Evening, sometime in the 1980s.* I am a busy divorced mother raising my daughter without child support from her father, so her well being and my work are top priorities. No time for any community involvement.
I live in a quaint, colonial-themed suburb of Philadelphia.
The phone rings. The voice on the other end is of community involvement. What do you think of establishing a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? he asks. I favor it completely! I answer, without hesitation. Please add my support!
I hang up and feel energized by the idea of honoring Dr. King at a deserved level and by the outward push toward the rest of the world. It felt right. I would later become involved once my daughter left home.
The holiday was established in 1986, commemorating the blessing of his life and the tragedy it invokes. The dream and the nightmare.
Years later I read that Dr. King's "dream" theme was inspired by that same term applied by members of a Black church that was torched--their dream to rebuild it. I assume that they succeeded.
But the dream is dissipating into thin air as Jim Crow rears his ugly head, targeting the voting rights of disadvantaged minorities throughout red and purple states.
Dr. King died in despair over his country's Vietnam war involvement. The arc of justice is certainly long. The power is descending to the level of state legislatures, racist ones, white supremacists.
For my senior year of high school, I attended a racist parochial high school in Atlanta where MLK's son had applied and been rejected. This became a scandal that resulted in the associated church formally, officially breaking all ties with the school that has since turned 360 degrees toward inclusiveness.
The racist headmaster, a short man with a crewcut and literally red neck, a graduate of Harvard's school of education, called together the senior class to inform us that the school would be integrating its student body next year and we must maintain a mature attitude to set a good example for the lower grades. "Nigrihs will be joining us," he drawled softly. Nigrihs. I felt as though I were in a Hollywood film documenting racism in the 1950s.
Other horrific events that senior year? The day the Black janitor was forced to play the piano and sing spirituals to a student assembly. He was wearing a work uniform. He sang a few songs slouching over the piano and then literally slithered out as the assembly applauded him politely.
This same janitor another day came in to clean a classroom that should have been empty. A few students had lingered and were chatting. I was among them. Small talk. There were a few stray Coke cans atop desks. Coke cans in a classroom? A Yankee transplant spoke up mockingly: "Have some of my Coke," he said to the janitor, who was working rapidly and totally ignored him. I cringed at the surprising behavior of a fellow northern transplant fully assimilated to the environment.
But another day, after school, I stopped at a department store where I lived, still in my uniform, a powder-blue shirtwaist. I was standing close to the entrance, my back to it, when I saw a Black couple out of the corner of my eye, both dressed in business attire. I glanced at them and did a rapid double take. It was the Kings, Coretta Scott and MLK. I smiled stupidly. She said hi dismissively. They had been speaking softly to each other and resumed their conversation. I stood in totally amazement watching them fade into the background of a place that was not terribly integrated as far as I can remember. But they were there, an antidote to the horrors I had experienced that year, an antidote to horror.
* I recall receiving the phone call in the late 1980s, but I have since read that the time span for the establishment of the holiday was 1983-1986. Baffling, to say the least. I didn't move to Newtown borough until the mid-1980s.