When we were children in the 1960s and 1970s, family who had migrated from the south to cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis made annual car-caravan trips on the U.S. interstate to visit Alabama where our adult relatives had been born. For the kids it was an adventure riding in the backseats of recent model cars—-manufactured in the plants where our dads and uncles worked. We tried to keep track of other travelers’ out-of-state license plates; munched on oranges, ham sandwiches, and peanuts; sang the latest James Brown or Motown songs loudly, (especially after the radio stations we were listening to crackled out of receptivity); and flashed the peace sign to kids riding in other cars who looked to be our same age✌🏾. While some children smiled, waved, and peace-signed us back, others stuck out their tongues, flashed their middle fingers, or gave us stony stares.
“Mommy, why don’t they say “peace” back to us?” I asked the first time one of our friendly overtures was not met in kind. There were no seatbelt laws then and me and my sisters and cousins spent a lot of time perched on our knees looking out the side and back windshields.
“Sit down in your seat.” she said tersely.
“Ya’ll need to simmer down.” Daddy co-signed.
A good number of quiet, sweaty minutes later my mother turned to us from the front passenger seat.
“Not all children learn the same thing in their house as you learn in ours.”
She took in our bewildered faces; less than 30 minutes ago we’d been smiling and giggling.
“But you don’t have to stop saying “peace” just because they don’t say it back.”
Today is the calendar day set aside to honor and commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I watched a live-stream of an address that civil rights icon Representative John Lewis was giving at an MLK Commemorative breakfast being held in Miami, Florida this morning. Representative Lewis recalled his own background, what life was like for him growing up in Troy, Alabama: how his father—-who was a sharecropper—-saved 300 dollars in order to purchase land on which the family grew cotton, peanuts, and corn. He talked about how he had liked raising chickens but disliked the work of cultivating and harvesting the crops and how he would pack his school books in a homemade satchel and hide underneath the porch of their house waiting for the school bus to come up the hill so he could run and catch the bus to school rather than work in the fields. “My teacher told me to READ, READ, READ!” Lewis said, encouraging the young people in attendance at the breakfast to do the same.
That’s so moving to me and makes me think about scores of children and young people—-black, brown, yellow, and white—-all of whom have a history that was once tied to working the land, to farming. Many parents, grandparents, and siblings made heart wrenching sacrifices so that their family members could get an education. Yet, as an adult in the 21st century, I have tutored men and women my age and older who never learned to read when they were children growing up in the south. Some had to help sharecrop and work farms alongside their parents; some were firstborn sons left to grow up quickly, taking on breadwinner roles when their fathers died, were lynched, or were absent for other reasons. Some families lived in areas where no schoolhouse existed for 10 or more miles around. In some families the decision about which children would go to school was determined by their gender. I don’t know if many young people today can grasp that this is the world that many of their parents, grandparents, and forebears lived, endured, as well as rebelled against and fled from.
John Lewis talked about getting his education and how he had hoped to become a preacher, someday. He applied to Troy State College (now Troy State University) but was denied admission because of his race. He said that he was aware of Dr. King’s work and wrote to him, requesting his help in getting admitted. Dr. King warned him that the fight could cost his family their property and possibly their lives. In those times black people (called negroes, then) who challenged the status quo in the south often became targets of intimidation, violence, and torture. Dr. King told John Lewis to discuss it with his family. John Lewis told the people at the commemorative breakfast about his parents’ fears, and his decision to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. This is where John Lewis found himself in constant contact with the ideas and ideals; teachers, student activists, preachers, strategists, and spokespersons who worked in the nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience movement. It is where he became a student leader, with Martin Luther King, Jr., as his mentor and hero. Dr. King, he said, “used to call me the boy from Troy.” I wonder how different the trajectory of John Lewis’s life might have been had he proceeded to try to desegregate Troy State College?
I found myself chuckling to hear John Lewis talk about recognizing that his activism could get him arrested, in which case, he wanted to look good! He went to a resale shop where he purchased a suit, in order to look “fresh,” he said; he wanted to look “sharp.” Despite the serious, often life-threatening work that he, his colleagues in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other volunteers in the struggle were engaged in and for which they were beaten and arrested numerous times—-I have to remind myself that Dr. Martin Luther King was only in his 30s in the 1960s, that most of the activists were teenagers and people in their 20s. And when I look at photographs taken during those times, many women wore dresses, the men wore ties; religious leaders often wore the affects that distinguished them as such.
“One day the South will recognize its real heroes…They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this morning’s commemorative breakfast address, John Lewis talked about Dr. King’s belief that only love can triumph over hate. It made me realize how little we hear the word love uttered in public discourse when we talk about human rights, fairness, social justice, and systemic reform, and that feels sad to me. As if the bricks and mortar of what it means to be compassionate, civil, fair, and inclusive somehow don’t have anything to do with love. Or maybe it is the stinging betrayal that the love and non-violent struggle preached and practiced by Dr. King—-the drum major for peace—did not save him from hatred and violence.
“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Read a PBS interview with James Zwerg here.