ELDER MUSIC: Give My Regards to Broadway
An Elder Couple's Suicide – A Reasoned Choice

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

It is sometimes said that old people have better memories for events that happened decades ago than for what they had for breakfast this morning.

As we have discussed here many times, old-age short-term memory difficulties certainly are annoying (the universal “why am I in this room” question). But at age 74, I have not yet noticed that old memories are stronger than recent ones.

However, today's holiday celebrating the life of the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds me how much history we elders have lived through and that those memories make real many of the events that for young students are often just dry facts on a page they must memorize for a test.

Today, we are almost 53 years removed from Dr. King's astonishing “I Have a Dream” speech which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 28 August 1963.

To repeat: 53 years ago. To a 10- or 12-year-old it might as well have happened in the year 1000. I know that when I was 12, in 1953, even World War II felt like ancient history, even though my father was a veteran. That's how it is when we are young.

But while we – you and I and the rest of our generation – are still here, we are living links to the history of our lifetimes and, today, to that historic moment in 1968.

I don't recall now if I listened to Dr. King's speech live on radio or television but I certainly saw it on the news that day, or more likely, the next. It was an immediate phenomenon.

Maybe someone reading this blog post today saw the speech in person. That's not as entirely unlikely as you might think; I know someone who was there. But even if you heard or saw it a day or week later, you were a contemporary witness to what still is the defining moment of the civil rights movement.

That makes you part of history and if you have grandchildren who are studying Dr. King at this time of year, or any other time, you can tell them what it was like in the United States back then when that speech raised the consciousness (or ire in some cases) of the entire nation.

That living connection matters. When I was a very young student – first or second or third grade, late 1940s – an old, old, old man came to our class on a day the teacher was telling us about President Abraham Lincoln.

I don't remember his name but I recall that he couldn't stand entirely straight, that he shuffled along slowly when he walked and was amazingly wrinkled.

He was there that day to tell us how, when he was a little boy, he had shaken the hand of President Lincoln. And when he was done telling us his story, he shook the hand of each student in the class.

I was thrilled to touch a person who had touched that famous president from a time so long ago I hardly understood it was real. History changed for me that day when I learned for the first time that those people really walked the earth once, just like me.

We, you and I, are old enough now that we, too, can pass on the reality of our historical moments to the next generations.

Just because it came to mind while I was writing this, here's another personal memory I have that is associated with Dr. King and what he stood for.

In 1968, I was married, living in Minneapolis and working at a small, industrial film production company.

First thing on the morning of 5 April, I heard on the radio that Dr. King had been assassinated the previous evening in Memphis.

At the office a short time later, I sat reading through newspaper reports of the tragedy as my co-workers arrived. The first one peered over my shoulder at the article and said, “I see they got another nigger.”

Each of my other colleagues, as they arrived, said something similar, using the same shocking word. To me, it was chilling that people, whatever their private attitudes, felt free to speak that way assuming, apparently, that I shared their feelings.

Unfortunately, all these years later, such beliefs hang on in some circles. We should remind ourselves and the young people we know how hard it is to fulfill a dream.

Here are the stirring final minutes of Dr. King's speech that day in 1963. The full speech is here.

Comments

eek. My entire email disappeared! I am not sure I can reassemble it.

In any case, Ronni, while you were in Minneapolis, I was still in Baltimore, my home town, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. A deep admirer of Dr. King, of all he believed and espoused. I remember when we learned of his assassination, how we wept, how we froze at hearing the same sort of slurs that you reported -- also the subsequent riots that led to Baltimore's inner harbor region being partly burned down.

I remember being in Atlanta subsequently, years later, visiting Dr. King's house and church, and mourning all over again.

And in more recent times, I marveled yet again at his outspoken beliefs - and how misread he was, not only by the racists [then and now], but by those who viewed him as weak in comparison to, e.g., Malcolm X.

I miss him still. Was reminded again of him when I recently got round to seeing Selma how powerfully radical he really was. And how the loss of him continues to affect me.

I also miss his wonderful thrilling use of language, that sonorous voice.

So yes, I was a witness in all these indirect ways. And I am grateful that I - in that less direct way - "knew" him.

A very powerful thought—that we are "living links" to the past. We should take that as a responsibility, and do all we can to review the memories and lessons of the past. Many things have changed in 53 years. Our current perceptions of racial differences are not perfect, but certainly much improved!

Ronni, thank you for reminding us of our personal connections to our nation's history and that we have not yet achieved Dr. King's vision for our nation. Older Americans can help promote a deeper appreciation of our complex history and the meaning of William Faulkner's quote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

A 1966 essay by James Baldwin further illuminates the power of our collective past: "For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations."

From “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes," full text here>.

Tony...

Baldwin does such a much better job of saying what I was trying to get at. And why shouldn't he. Thanks for this quotation.

Although much remains to be done to fulfill Dr. King's dream, we've made great progress as a nation in the 70 years of history I can recall. I won't be around to see it, but I am confident the day will come when freedom rings equally everywhere in the U.S. for everyone.

I was raised to feel close to a history though living links -- for example that, as a little girl, my great grandmother had attended Lincoln's second inaugural with her father, a Congresscritter who helped invent stratagems to fund the Union in the Civil War.

When Dr. King was killed, I was a student at UC Berkeley. In California, we were still feeling the trauma of seeing Bobby Kennedy shot after winning our presidential primary that spring.

It's hard for me to see current domestic traumas as events of equal seering magnitude, but of course they are for those coming up today.

Off now to the Oakland MLK march, naturally led by #BlackLivesMatter -- because they do. :-)

Gabbygeezer reminds of us that we indeed have made progress. I remember my family being turned away from a private beach on the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1960s due to our color. But the following quote from Cornel West (and our nation's history) remind me that progress is an ongoing struggle and does not come automatically:

"Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it’s not optimism. I’m in no way an optimist. I’ve been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called “The Sentiment of Rationality,” where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that’s what I’m talking about."
From West's speech at Wesleyan in 1993, http://www.humanity.org/voices/commencements/cornel-west-wesleyan-speech-1993

Thank you for your post.

Early after the designation of MLK Holiday in 1986, I hosted a multi-generational potluck gathering. It was a special event. I remember as my parents and their peers, along with myself and my peers shared with our children our memories and experiences of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and about his assassination. Today, most of the older participants have passed-on; I am grateful that my children were able to hear directly from their grandparents. Today, I look forward to having similar gatherings with my grandchildren to share with them my stories/memories and living history.

I recall vividly attending high school on April 5th, 1968 and listening with great grief as several classmates celebrated Dr. King's assassination, much as you describe at your worksite. That year was very difficult! On the day we graduated our celebrations were stopped by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on June 6th. I still believe in MLK's dream; and will work towards it's realization until I've passed-on.

Today I will be participating in a service project for less fortunate neighbors; next year I will host another pot luck.

As an alder who lived through the Great Depression I had an opportunity to pass along my memories of the time of the "Grapes Of Wrath" to my granddaughters, who - much to my surprise - were studying it in school and were writing essays on it.

Now I think I need to write them about the conditions that the Blacks had to endure prior to Dr. Martin Luther King. I witnessed the horrible conditions that the Blacks were subjected to when I spent 3 months in Orlando, Florida. Their shacks with dirt roads were shocking and the way they were treated like subhuman animals was a horrible revelation to me. I was from Colorado Springs and had never witnessed bigotry in all it's ugliness until then. I think I grew up from that experience and it distresses me to this day.

In April 1968, I was visiting in Australia. Australians, at that time, were very curious about the United States and enthused about all things (clothes, music, movies, gadgets, cars) American. As soon as I spoke which announced my origin, I became the expert on America and the target of many friendly questions. Then the assassination. I cannot count how many times I was asked to explain how something this horrible could happen in a country that seemed such a shining example of good things. I could not.

I was in rehearsal for our senior class play in Freeport, Illinois, the evening of Dr. King's assassination, when a fellow student, not in the play, came running into the auditorium to share the news. I immediately was taken back to a moment four years earlier, in my 8th grade math class in San Antonio, Texas, when news came over the intercom that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. The day before, I had been only a few feet from the President and First Lady as their motorcade passed by the grocery store where we shopped regularly, and I could not absorb the words coming over the intercom.

Four years later, as the news about Dr. King began to sink in, I felt that same way, what I'm guessing must have been something like PTSD, something like shock, a feeling that the world was spinning out of control. It's hard to believe it's been nearly fifty years since then.

Thank you, Tony Sarmiento, for the links to the Baldwin essay and the words of Cornel West on hope and optimism. For those of us living in communities which seem to have only shifted their attitudes and behaviors rather superficially over the decades, it helps to read words like this now and then. Especially on days like today.

I have been a "radical" since I was 15 and in high school. The next year I was in college and joined Young Democrats and participated in "Fair Housing" marches at Wichita State University in Wichita, KS.

Not to be critical, but I could not have listened to co-workers using the word "nigger" without calling them out. I might have lost my job over it, but I would have felt compelled to speak up. Especially in the North. I have lived in Memphis, TN -- in August of 1968 -- and have seen Ku Klux Klan members. I did not speak up against them, because I do have a small spark of self-preservation and the crowd was ugly against blacks. And I was just a young, white woman with no one to protect me (the police were also being ugly against blacks).

I never met Dr. King, but I greatly admired his courage and his rhetoric. He had faults, he was not a saint -- but then, neither were JFK and RFK, two more of my heroes. It was devastating to me that all three of my heroes were dead by the time I was 20.

Classof65...
How do you know I didn't call them out? Today's post was not about me.

Ronni, your post about your co-workers reminded me how some people in my own family were bigots. It is hard for me to even write those words, but they were. Something that heartens me to this day, however, is that even though I was so close to that kind of perverse hatred, it didn't touch me. I knew every time I heard that word "Nigger" that it was the worst word in the world. Being a child I couldn't and didn't challenge them--but when I got the chance I sat with the only black girl in our school. I am not writing this to pat myself on the back. On the contrary, I am just grateful that they weren't able to indoctrinate me.

I remember watching the news clips of the crowd that marched that day and the one thing that stuck out with me was seeing actor Charlton Heston locked arm in arm with some black men. I could see other whites mixed in with the predominantly black crowd but it was Heston’s image that struck me more.

As a Catholic, Heston was a hero to many of us in the 50’s and early ’60’s from his roles as Moses, Ben Hur and El Cid. He remained an admirable character to me on through the years until he took over the role as NRA president.

This was troubling for me because it was Heston’s presence in Washington that day in 1963 that forever opened my eyes to how those of us in the South were still treating blacks in inhumane ways. I can recall the separate public bathrooms and water fountains as well as signs demanding blacks sit at the back of the bus or in secluded spots in restaurants.

The man who elevated the civil rights movement to a higher plain for me becoming part of an organization that I have come to despise was discomforting to say the least.

Yet another quirky moment in my 67 years

My high school had a diverse population. That's what made it interesting. There were some black students from New York City, sent to live with their Canadian relatives. We had students from many countries. One black teacher taught Black History. I was assigned to his class as a Resource Teacher. That class was fantastic. Students paid attention.

Yesterday, St. Pete p, Florida held it's annual MLK parade. It is one of the biggest parades in the USA. People lined the street for miles.

The city showcases all the positive work done by schools, churches, marching bands, safety, city leaders, volunteers, police, firefighters, etc. It's a wonderful parade. A motivating, prideful event.

There are portable food trucks, barbeques.

The atmosphere is delightful.

Everyone is welcome.

We never miss that parade.

The MLK speech sends shivers up my spine to this day. We still have a long way to go, to achieve his dream, and it will take each one of us to get up and say something when we see anyone treated less than equal.

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