Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have turned 81 earlier this month. I have come to appreciate and admire him (and all the civil rights workers) by reading Taylor Branch's brilliant trilogy of the civil rights era: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65; and At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68.
What thoroughly amazes me were the toughness, resiliency, and resolve of the civil rights workers, and how they honored King's insistence upon nonviolent resistance. Along with King, the names of heroes such as John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Rosa Parks, Coretta King, Septima Clark, James Meredith, Andrew Young, Marian Wright, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Bevel, Bob Moses, et al., are forever burned in my mind. Similarly, I shall not soon forget place names like Selma and Montgomery, or people like Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Bull Connor, Orval Faubus, Strom Thurmond, and their ilk.
As I read the aforementioned books, cringing at what humans can do to each other, one thought haunted me: what would I have done had I been a Southern white person during that time (I am actually half-North Carolina Scots-Irish WASP)? I've concluded that I probably would not have been one of the segregationist ringleaders, but certainly would not have risen to the defense of the oppressed. I probably would have (very quietly) supported their cause, but not done anything to jeopardize my comfortable middle-class lifestyle (see the quote below). Certainly Northerners were no better than Southerners when it came to desegregation; recall the Boston busing "incidents" of the 1970s.
Another thing also amazes me: how much the Southern poor whites ("poor white trash") and blacks had in common. Both were horribly oppressed, but skillful politicians kept the poor whites riled about the "uppity Negroes". If the two groups had united, there would have been hell to pay.
Here is King's "I Have a Dream" speech:
I do have a few interesting memories about that period, as I was a student in Virginia (College of William and Mary) from 1966-1970. Just after I arrived in Virginia, Sen. Harry F. Byrd died - he was the scion of the infamous Byrd (members of the FFV) political dynasty in Virginia, and the whole state mourned his death. What I remember most about that time is the characterization of Byrd by a local columnist:
"Never was there a man who so dragged his feet through the sands of time."
I recall going on field trips to areas in the rural South and being "bold" enough to enter the "Colored" bathrooms or drink from the "Colored Only" water fountains. To me it was a game; I had little realization or understanding of all the hatred and oppression embodied in those few simple words. And I am now embarrased to admit that my roommate (a Jew) and I (a Yankee) had a Confederate flag in our dorm room. Sure, we used it to cover holes in the wall, but that's a lame excuse - we could have used a psychedelic poster or a peace symbol, not a heinous symbol anathema to millions.
One recollection, though, is humorous. I was playing with the W & M marching band at the Southern Governors' conference in Williamsburg. As we stood at attention, Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia came by and started scurrying among us, chattering away, grabbing at our instruments and asking if we would play "Dixie". Finally, our stoic band director, Charles Varner, could restrain himself no longer and quietly but firmly said to Maddox, "I'm afraid we don't know 'Dixie', Governor, but we would be glad to play 'Marching Through Georgia' for you." That stopped Lester dead in his tracks, and he frowned and walked away. After that, for me, ol' Chuck's stature zoomed upwards.
We all have a huge debt to Dr. King and his followers. They were all remarkable, courageous people.
"We will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends." -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968