Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr,who would have turned 88 yesterday. I am sure that Dr. King is looking down favorably upon President Barack Obama, soon to leave office after two terms. But I suspect he would be deeply troubled by the current political climate which has given license to bigots and their ilk to spew their vitriol, exacerbated and enhanced by the use of social media. He would be saddened by the seeming desire to return America to greatness, which to some is code for a time when America was segregated and people of color were invisible and marginalized. It's clear that we have much work to do.
But back to honoring Dr. King.
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 (now a Georgia Congressman; listen to him on the Diane Rehm Show), 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.
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. One stands out. 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."
Here is a humorous memory. I played alto saxophone in the W&M marching band, and we had been engaged to provide entertainment at the Southern Governors' Conference (in Williamsburg or Jamestown). While we stood in formation, who should start darting among the band members, fiddling with the music and instruments and being a nuisance? It was none other than Lester Maddox, newly-elected segregationist governor of Georgia. He finally asked our band director, Charles 'Chuck' Varner, if we knew Dixie, and if so, could we play it? Varner, annoyed by all of Maddox's antics, calmly but firmly said, 'No, Governor, we don't have the music for it but we would gladly play Marching Through Georgia for you. Maddox stopped, scowled fiercely, and then darted off whence he came. Way to go, Chuck!
"I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 August 1963
"That's part of American greatness, is discrimination. Yes, sir. Inequality, I think, breeds freedom and gives a man opportunity." - Lester Maddox