Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr , who would have turned 82 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."