When I was a kid in Charleston, South Carolina, I saw a cross burning in a field one night as my father drove us to some place I can’t remember. I have no recollection of how I interpreted the meaning—that would come some years later—nor do I recall my parents’ explanation of why the night sky rippled with the flames of a burning crucifix.
I also could not understand why my caretaker, an immense, lovely black woman named Bess-Bess, would drink out of a separate water fountain when she took me for walks in the park. I surmised that she drank from an “adult” water fountain and that I had been relegated to the “children’s fountain.” Ironically, I felt left out—and that some people were given separate rights, in this case age keeping me from tasting water better than mine.
Years later, two days out to sea on a Norwegian freighter hauling iron ore from Brazil to Baltimore, a stranger stepped out of the deck’s only forward structure, a hell-hole of an oven-hot paint shed. I say ‘stranger’ because after a few days at sea it’s a given that you could recognize the whole crew.
Lanky, wild-haired with electric green eyes, dark as an Amazon shadow and wearing the few tattered clothes he owned, Renee, a Brazilian stowaway, walked up to me with a smile as big as Christmas morning and asked, “America?” The rest was a torrent of Portugese, but the gist was that his dream was coming true and that he was finally headed to America. “Yes, America!,” I stuttered, only to realize that I was a mere deck boy, standing in blazing, sub-equatorial heat on the deck of ship in the middle of the ocean speaking in broken English to a Brazilian stowaway and knowing that his dream would lead to some kind of detainment and that his hopes would wither as he was pointed back to Brazil. This wasn’t going to turn out well.
But by the time the rest of the ship’s crew realized they had a stowaway, Renee had taken one of the chipping hammers and gone to work full-bore chipping away rust from everything in sight, an endless job on ships, and one I’d been all summer. He was so driven to prove himself he tried to work after dark.
The summer rolled on. The Captain allowed Renee to work with the deck boys and there was talk of some kind of official instatement. (Whether that would be under Norwegian maritime law or U.S. I never knew and I often wondered if he ended up in Bergen rather than Baltimore.) Renee, along with the help of a Spaniard onboard, helped us decode Portuguese. Then one day Renee would not longer to speak to us. In fact, he shunned us. We were perplexed. Nothing untoward had taken place. My appeals to him were met with a wincing twist of his face conveying distrust, even disdain. Finally he took me to his cabin and showed me a magazine photograph—police attack dogs tearing into a black man, maybe in Birmingham, Alabama, maybe the Watts riots, it could have been anywhere, any city during the 60s. He looked at me as though I had betrayed him and said, “You do this in America.” It wasn’t even a question.
“Not all of us!,” was all I could summon, because at that moment something tore in me. America had been reflected back to me through another’s eyes and I could see the inherent and struggling beauty that is America, but I also could see its deep and divisive flaws.
These vignettes were my ‘cloud seeding’ before the rain of a little understanding. I had been slow on the uptake, insulated by geography and experience, and yes, being white and accepting the social paradigm unblinkingly. But the Civil Rights Movement, woven into the dark tangle of the 1960s—Viet Nam, assassinations, Kent State, the Chicago Democratic Convention—was embodied by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it was his voice and call to peaceful but direct action that for many of us blew off the door of denial, our unwillingness to see, and inspired us to challenge the indignities of social injustice.
All of the complexities of the equality movement, handed down from early abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, found their way into the eloquence and courage of King’s mission to end racial segregation through non-violence, address poverty and end the war in Southeast Asia.
A burning cross in Charleston. A drink of water at a fountain. A stowaway on a Norwegian freighter. We all have those moments, those intimate glimpses into the mirror to see ourselves and the country we continue to create. We either recognize them and are stung by the truth or the moment slips away to return again in some other manifestation. Revelation is spurred by conscience, sometimes to become choiceless action.
Acting on these self-evaluations was Dr. King’s great gift to us.
In a way, we are all heading to America, at least our understanding of it and how we want it to be. Like Renee, he have a certain image of it shaped by our hopes and fears. Like Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham, written in the margins of a newspaper—the only paper he had in jail and smuggled out to his organization—America also is written piecemeal by all of us, a puzzle of notes to be decrypted, understood and announced.
“… I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. (April 1963, from the Birmingham jail)
“An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” (ibid)
We have come a long way from the jails of Birmingham, but the journey continues as we address the systemic racial disparities throughout our society—prison incarceration (6 to 1), housing patterns, educational opportunities, to name a few.
Today is a good day to think upon these things and to remember the man who showed us that a dangerous march across a bridge in peaceful protest against injustice is never a bridge too far.