I remember Martin Luther King Jr very clearly, although I do not remember meeting him, as I’m told I did. In the early ’60s my father worked at Brown University in the chaplain’s office. A protege of William Slone Coffin’s from Yale Divinity School, from which he received his Doctor of Divinity degree, my father was responsible in those days for inviting speakers to visit Brown. Many civil rights activists, MLK Jr and Malcolm X included, were among them.
Almost always after the events, speakers were invited to a reception at our house, or someone else’s house, close to the campus. I remember that time mostly as a time of a lot of people coming and going. I was 6 years old when MLK visited Brown University in November 1960. My father and MLK were the same age.
The famous “I Have a Dream” speech occurred exactly on my 9th birthday – August 28, 1963. My father was in Washington DC to attend, along with a couple of bus loads he organized of residents of Middletown, CT and faculty from Wesleyan University, where he was by then chaplain.
I watched the whole event, hoping to catch a glimpse of my father, and listening to all the speeches, hymns, and songs. I remember MLK Jr’s speech as an excellent one, but it was more or less expected in those days that he would give a great speech. He always seemed to. We (my mother and I) always watched his speeches, and very often my father was there. The “Dream” speech was considered as one of his best, to be sure, but at the time it did not have the stature it has today.
I remember most clearly my father’s eulogy in Wesleyan Chapel after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis five years later. He could barely get the words out between the tears. I was crying, too. The whole place was.
When my father traveled to Mississippi and Alabama as a Freedom Rider in the mid 60s, marching from Selma to Montgomery, organizing food and clothing drives for Belzoni, we of course worried that he might not come back. My mother put a brave face on it for us but several Northerners had been murdered in cold blood in those days for trying to intervene in segregated society, including clergymen. The Middletown Press ran an article at the time that recounted my father’s squaring off with a Mississippi policeman trying to close down a march. A witness in the party was quoted as saying he came dangerously close to getting beaten with a nightstick and arrested, as so many were. But he continued to go, and we were proud of him, especially after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregation.
It is hard to believe how bad things were in the late 50s and early 60s for black people in the South. How many brave black and white people gave their lives, and were injured, which was always a threat in the air, for equality. Because of Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, there were many, many others, including my father, who did their part and took their chances. But he was indisputably the leader, not only in speeches but also in nonviolent action.
I remember the big struggle to get MLK Jr day declared a national holiday. I still see the nasty, ignorant, and hateful comments on Facebook and other Web pages about him and the day. Back then, it was literally a matter of life and death, and of serious injury, jail time, and financial loss to stand up for equal rights.
He should never have had to do what he did. Equal rights for black people should never have been an issue. But it was, and he fixed it, along with my father and thousands of other brave souls. Let’s celebrate them all today, and clearly remember what inspired us all to act in the name of justice for all.