Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We've All Inherited Dr. King's Legacy

Aging into midlife robs you of some things, such as the unthinking optimism of youth. But in a week as momentous as this one, it also brings you a deeply satisfying sense of perspective and even a tempered, tentative optimism.

This is your brain on hope.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president is of course a source of triumphantly joyful pride for black Americans. So it is, too, for many white Americans, especially those of us of a certain age.

We remember, as children, seeing on television the firehoses and police dogs turned on the brave black people who marched the streets of southern cities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They sought the simple right to dine at a lunch counter, drink from a fountain, sit at the front of the bus.

We saw Peter, Paul and Mary, the whitest of folksingers, standing side-by-side with Martin Luther King and a host of black leaders as Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech.

We watched our cities be torn apart by race riots.

We woke up one sad April morning in 1968 to the news that Dr. King had not in fact made it to the mountaintop, that he had been gunned down in Memphis.

In response to that event, I took the American flag that hung outside our house, in the upstate New York town where I grew up, and placed it at half-mast. The white folks in our predominantly white town talked about that for weeks. A few of them made snide remarks. A few more thanked me for the gesture.

By that June, Bobby Kennedy, whose presidential campaign was for peace in Vietnam and racial comity at home, was gone, too.

I had been sensitized early on to the complexities of race because my parents and many generations before them were southerners. My great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy. My grandfather, a Georgia dairy farmer, once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. (He quit in disgust as it grew ever more aggressively racist.)

When I reached my teens, my father made a point of taking me to local meetings of blacks and whites. There, a black minister and a white worker from the Office of Economic Opportunity were trying to bridge the gap that separated the European-Americans of town from the African-Americans.

Several decades later, America’s small towns and the United States as a whole have yet to achive a perfect union.

But at least we’ve grown past some of our prejudices. We’ve elected not just an African-American president, but one whose name sounds like those of the decade’s most wanted men.

We’ve gone from Saddam Hussein to Barack Hussein Obama. From Osama bin Laden to Obama Biden.

When Obama spoke at the Lincoln Memorial this week, in front of Lincoln’s statue and in honor of Dr. King, he made just one passing reference to the civil rights leader. Barack didn’t have to say much about Martin. The president-elect’s very presence said it all.

“What gives me hope is what I see when I look out across this mall,” Obama said. “Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.

“And yet, as I stand here, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you -- Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.”

I’ve lived through a few decades of trying to do my small part to help us get there, too. And I can’t help but think of how much white activists -- along with Obama and a couple generations of black activists, too -- have learned from Dr. King and his successors.

At a peace rally not long after King’s assassination, in Washington up by the U.S. Capitol, I was wandering around behind the stage. I looked up one moment and there, marching resolutely past me in black boots, jeans and denim jackets, was Ralph Abernathy-- who had taken over the leadership after Dr. King’s death – plus Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young.

Impulsively, I clapped Rev. Abernathy on the shoulder and thanked him for all he was doing. To him, I was just a longhaired white college kid, who had startled him as he and his colleagues walked toward the podium. But we were all on the same side.

The next day, I joined a Quaker protest at the gates of the White House to challenge President Nixon’s claim that he acted out of Quaker principles. As we knew they would, the police came to cart us away. We sang “We Shall Overcome” as they escorted us to the paddy wagons and the D.C. jail. (The police action in removing us from a public sidewalk was later ruled illegal.)

This week in Middlebury, when town and gown gathered at the college’s Mead Chapel to honor Dr. King’s memory and movement, again the song was “We Shall Overcome.”

When climate activists from Middlebury College organized the recent Step It Up and Project 350 campaigns against global warming, they consciously took the civil rights movement as a model.

It’s the best playbook we have for how to broadly and peacefully organize to effect widespread
change --not just in policy, but in people’s consciousness, too.

Some of these climate activists camped out on my land a couple years ago, during their trek from Ripton up to Burlington. I took out a guitar and sang them an old civil rights song. It’s called “Thirsty Boots.” Eric Andersen wrote it for a friend who had been campaigning for integration in the South of the early Sixties:

Tell me of the ones you saw
As far as you could see
Across the plain from field to town
A-marching to be free
And of the rusted prison gates
That tumbled by decree
Like laughing children one by one
They looked like you and me

In the week when we’ve inaugurated our first black president -- 41 years after Dr. King’s death, when the dream seemed to die but didn’t -- that’s what I see when I look at Barack Obama’s America.

It looks like a rainbow coalition of colors.

It looks like you and me.

- 30 -


Blogger Rosemary Carstens said...

"This is your brain on hope." This is a great line, Greg. A beautiful obviously heartfelt post and I couldn't agree more.
I learned a lot about bias and hatred in the small southern CALIFORNIA town I grew up in about 90 miles SE of Los Angeles in the fifties. Although our population was pretty evenly distributed among whites, blacks, and latinos (oh, how the names have evolved!), all government,law enforcement, and business owners were white. The abuse the other two populations suffered was shocking, especially when it was brought home violently one night at a high school football game when I saw my own father (a reserve deputy) brutually beat a young black friend of mine to the ground. I've never forgotten that scene, or one that also occurred in those same years while I was at the movies. The lights all came on, two police officers walked down the aisle and roughly dragged some young black man out of his chair. As we left the theater later, there was a crowd of ugliness with police and black citizens blocking the street. For me, these experiences reinforced a hightened sense of the important of justice for all human beings that has stayed with me throughout my life. It was the injustice of racism and bigotry that probably sensitized me to the inequality of women when it came to the feminist movement. Now that I think back on them, these childhood experiences have probably shaped me and my life as much or more than anything else.

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