Where Is The Love? Reflections On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

photo of a postcard of a Jean-Michel Basquiat work, Untitled (1982)

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.”

A Drum Major for Peace

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?

Representative John Lewis of Georgia

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.

postcard of a photo by Moneta Sleet, Jr.

“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.

Beaten and bloodied Freedom Riders John Lewis and James Zwerg in 1961

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.

 

lapel pins of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. (photo by Leslie Reese)

Read a PBS interview with James Zwerg here.

30 Comments

  1. Would you be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.

    Autumn

  2. To remember and record our history is so very important, and you have brought that era alive again. I was a student at University of Toronto in the sixties and took part in the Selma March (in Toronto) against segregation and people from SNCC came up for that weekend. Martin Luther King remains one of the world’s great moral leaders. Perhaps that quote of his above is where Obama got the title for his book The Audacity of Hope.
    Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Without memory there is no healing.”

    1. Hi Diane – I have to apologize for responding so late to your comment. I think I composed an earlier reply, and then didn’t hit the button, or something! I didn’t know that students in Toronto marched in solidarity with those who marched in Selma, Alabama. Thank you for sharing that with us. I love reading the history that historians research, contextualize, and interpret for us, yet, there is nothing like hearing from people who have lived it. One of my goals is to read more of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s less popular writings and speeches, because I think there is still more for us to learn from him.

      Thank you for sharing this beautiful quote from Bishop Desmond Tutu.❤️

  3. What a lovely post! You brought home to me how negative political discourse has become recently, both in your country and mine (UK). While that time of the Civil Rights Movement had its bleak and tragic episodes, it really was symbolised by hope and belief in the basic goodness of the majority of humanity. It doesn’t feel like that today. Perhaps it’s time for a new Martin Luther King or John Lewis, to inspire us all to aim for a better future…

    1. I agree with you that the political discourse in both the U.S and the UK is so loudly negative; that’s why I am consciously seeking out the hopeful voices of resistance. Inspiring leaders are a great blessing, but should no new ones emerge, then I will take heart in the work and words of social justice activists past and present. Thank you so much for visiting and sharing your thoughts❣️

  4. Where do I begin?

    I’ll say it again, if I haven’t before. I adore your storytelling style. You literally had me at the edge of my seat. (I’m at my desk now, as I type.)

    I love that I always come away from your posts with some fresh insight, and with knowledge I never had before. Thank you for always enlightening me.

    Your introduction is evocative. It made me remember my childhood, and the almost four-hour car ride, then, with my parents and little sister, to my father’s hometown in the country every summer. I miss those days.

    I didn’t know about Rep. John Lewis until this week. My introduction to him was a video clip on Twitter of him receiving a National Book Award, and his account of how, as a boy, he had been turned away from getting a library card because of his race. I felt so cut up (still do), especially when I saw how much the memory affected him in that moment, decades after the incident.

    Was Coretta Scott King called Desert Rose? I hope that isn’t a stupid question.

    P. S. I’m so glad I didn’t rush to read this post. It was worth the wait. 🙂

    1. Dearest Nadine – My heart is warmed by your comments, thank you. I always hope that what I write here connects with people in the ways you have described, so I appreciate you taking the time to share that feedback.

      Have you written down the memories of your family’s visits to your father’s hometown?

      I wasn’t aware of Rep. John Lewis’s library card story – I think I need to read his book, the graphic novel, March!
      Thanks for asking about “Desert Rose” – I made another blog post to answer your question!
      Hugs to you!

      1. Leslie, you’re most welcome. I mean every word.

        Thanks so much for the Desert Rose post. I’ll read it soon.

        Here’s the video clip I mentioned: https://twitter.com/NBCNightlyNews/status/799661509139787776. Will check out his graphic novel.

        No, I haven’t written down those memories. That’s a brilliant idea. Thanks! I regret, though, not interviewing my grandparents before their deaths. Now, I don’t have certain family information that I could use for research. 🙁

        Before I forget, it’s such a treat to see that photo of you in your header. I remember it from your IG.

  5. Leslie…I always enjoy building my habit of “stick-to-it-ness” reading your insightful and informative posts. This time I was also taken with your lovely featured image of a beautiful black lady being in the moment feeling her joy. Awe inspiring to be sure!

  6. Girl…love…you and I have been loving, laughing, crying, singing, questioning, answering, talking, debating and praying with each other for over 38 years now…and I have LOVED every second…you inspire me to do and be better every day…keep doing what you do best and that is being you…your forever friend, Joleta.

    1. Hey, My-Friend-From-Way-Back-When: I receive your loving words of friendship, thank you. I have long admired your strength and generosity, your independent thought, and the passion you bring to all endeavors and discussions. Be brave, Mama! And thank you for visiting my blog (I know that’s not your thing)😊.

  7. Les, such thoughtful and poetic words. These reflections and others that have touched me over the past few days remind me to do as much as I can for as many as I can.

    1. Welcome to folklore & literacy, Pam! I would love to check out the reflections that have touched you over the past few days – I think I need a compendium! an anthology! to keep me bolstered! Thank you for visiting, reading, and commenting. ❤️❤️

  8. Your story of John Lewis was so inspiring. I learned quite a bit about the stance he is taking politically from reading your post. Listening builds understanding which in turn breeds compromise which breeds peace and love. ✌🏻To you!!!

    1. Hi Jennifer -I like that formula! I’ve known about John Lewis for a long time, but yesterday my heart seemed to drink from his story as I was reflecting on what Dr. Martin Luther King‘s legacy means to me, today. Thank you for visiting and sharing.
      ✌🏾&❤️!

  9. Love! Yes that we do need a lot more of. This was beautifully written and is an inspiring piece with everything that is about to happen. Working the land is a common connection that seems to have faded into the past and forgotten. That was the beginning of a lot of things. Remembering the past is something we should all do more often. I’m sure that would curtail making mistakes today and in the future.

    1. Hi Didi –
      You know, I don’t want to spend all of my present time living in the past, but there are some riches “back there” that maybe, if brought forward, could be a balm for us in these times. I’m glad that you found this piece inspiring. ❤️❤️

    1. …Er…yeah. ’tis I!
      I always feel enchanted by first snowfall of winter. This was the result of having stopped a young woman on the street to ask if she would take my photo. Thanks Lady! wherever you are!

  10. Thanks for sharing this Leslie. Great observation about the absence of ‘love’ – maybe that would make issues more relatable and inspire greater empathy than legal speak and talk of charters etc..you’d think love would be the natural state, but history of human nature suggests otherwise.

    1. “….but the history of human nature suggests otherwise.” So true! Nevertheless, I intend to look to LOVE for my strength and inspiration (even if its “tough love)! Thank you for reading and commenting, Mek! Peace & Love.

  11. I enjoyed reading this post. Yes, many of us have a history with working the land or the fields. I remember growing up in the 60s in Florida. My father and grandfather worked “on the season” in the orange groves.

    1. Hi Lynette-I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I had a more “highfalutin” idea for honoring Dr. King’s memory, but it just didn’t come together, and in a way I’m glad that it didn’t. Thank you for sharing your memory of the seasonal labor done by your father and grandfather. Peace & Love.

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