MLK: He Spoke of Dreams
The memory of Martin Luther King Jr. provides me with a continuing source of strength and confidence in the soul of America. Though in my childhood, I remember well the events of the 1960’s and the explanations of my troubled parents as they groped with their fear and confusion. I was largely unaffected by the confusion, but through the entirety of my northern suburban existence, the words of Dr. King inspired me.
I was nine years old the day my teacher sent us home from school in 1963; announcing that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I was fourteen when Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were slain. Throughout that time of my coming of age, I saw and came to understand the struggle for equality through various lenses. My father’s sister was an attorney and through her political connections she was able to arrange for my family to see Dr. King deliver a speech in Cleveland when I was around ten years old. I had a pretty good seat. I still remember the vision of the man well. Beyond that all I remember is the church that he spoke at was packed to the gills, uncomfortably hot and that I fell asleep before the event concluded. It was years before I came to appreciate how fortunate I am to have that vision as a personal memento.
Ironically, the clashing ideology of factions bent on influencing the path of progress for Blacks provided philosophical choices among us as I matured. I came to understand the massive scale of the Civil Rights Movement. And make no mistake, even to this day, I believe in and celebrate every aspect of every effort undertaken in that cause as I grew within it and embraced it. My father often reminded me in response to reports of demonstrations and disturbances, of the words of Frederick Douglass: “There is no progress without struggle.”
Mine was a childhood of lectures from my parents as I sat for what seemed like endless days on my living room floor with my siblings watching speeches, assassinations, funeral processions and civil unrest on the evening news. On many of those evenings my city was in flames. I learned from a distance about the National Guard, segregation and racist politicians. I watched my mother weep as our heroes were laid to rest and as Blacks were abused, jailed and murdered in this place called the south that I had no understanding of.
I continued to see the relentless drive of Dr. King. I continued to hear his stirring words and I was moved whenever he spoke. In my place on the floor of my living room I remember watching him deliver the historic “I Have a Dream” speech. That was my introduction to oratory that may well have shaped my understanding of the value and the strength of words as well as the power of a single voice. More than that, I came to appreciate the man that Dr. King was that day: the pride and purpose he drew from those of good conscience in America. The impact of this should not be misunderstood. In my world, there were numerous other views among those in my sphere of influence.
Young people in my city were largely drawn to more militant resistance ideology. The Black Panthers, Black Nationalists and the Nation of Islam organized and thrived in the City of Cleveland and in many, if not most northern urban centers. Singing… even humming “We Shall Overcome” would have been plenty enough fuel to get you a good thumping in certain company. I observed that a raised fist and a shout of “Black Power” or “Say it Loud… I’m Black and I’m proud” were far safer slogans to spew in most quarters. This resistance within and from outside of the American Black existence of the 1960’s speaks volumes about the vision, power and the commitment of Dr. King.
Dr. King organized a movement on behalf of his people without the support of a good many of his people. Through it all, he never relented or succumbed to pressures from those who opposed his selfless efforts. He was often maligned for his unwavering commitment to a peaceful movement. In the meantime, he never lost sight of his vision as he planted seeds of righteousness that would flourish across this nation and the world. Seldom will you hear anyone speak of the difficulties that Dr. King faced within his own ethnic community. There were lines of demarcation, verbal clashes and fierce competition for power and the limelight. In my view, those who selected insurrection’s path to “Freedom Road” were heroes of the movement as well. It is a travesty that they are not celebrated for their efforts more abundantly in our history. For example, the Sioux Nation celebrates one who our government called rogue: their national hero, Sitting Bull. Dr. King was their rogue in gentleman’s clothing.
He was a figurative son of Ghandi and literally a son of God. The scope and scale of his presence through the course of our history both during his life and after his death are an unquestionable phenomenon that resonates with us across generations. He was jailed and beaten, vilified and harassed relentlessly for years with the tacit approval of our government. Yet his faith never faltered and his passion never ebbed. He spoke of demands for equality with kind words and piercing prose. He marched for demands with steely quiet and disarming bravery. He accepted the inevitability of his death with strength of spirit that gripped and strengthened the soul of a nation. No Nobel Prize or annual remembrance can provide a true impression of what this man, this proud American, contributed to steering this great nation to the course of greater good. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a special man of special talents at a special time. America’s destiny was shaped by his sacrificial gift to us all.
Yes, I saw him once. This event was before I was old enough to fully understand America’s plight and visualize the warts of the nation. All I knew was what I heard. He spoke of dreams.
He spoke of dreams for me…
L. A. Walker, © Leon A. Walker