Martin Luther King Jr, from Icons of the Civil Rights Movement, by Pamela Chatteron-Purdy
Today, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I’ve decided to celebrate by taking a look back at the work he’s known for, although this complex man excelled on many platforms.
No one can dispute the importance of Martin Luther King to the US civil rights movement. He was its guiding star and its most revered martyr.
Through King’s example and his teachings, hundreds of thousands of ordinary and unknown people pushed the movement ahead with a myriad of simple acts of personal, peaceful protest. Ultimately, they got legislation they wanted, acknowledging and guaranteeing civil rights on many – but not all – fronts. If those folk are still around, they know who they are, and we know they can’t help but think of those difficult days every year about this time, then again in April and August.
Although the US still has a long way to go to reach justice and equality for all, much has happened since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our children and our grandchildren would find it difficult to believe what life was like for black people less than 50 years ago, when King was alive and pursuing his dream. But, I remember and so do many Birds readers, so I believe it's important to share those memories. For an expanded essay on King’s life and the impact he had on the US, go here and then here to Some Thoughts on the Legacy of MLK, parts 1 and 2.
If you remember, won't you share your stories, too? Please hit Comments above, and leave them for all to read. You don't need to leave your email address.
I hope you don’t mind, but I’m republishing six short pieces I ran last year about civil rights and early 1960s sit ins. Maybe they will show you how Martin Luther Kind figured into the lives of those who were young in the 1960s.
Four posts are about life in and around Washington DC before the 1964 CRA, including a collection of my own memories. One of the four includes some incredible news footage of demonstrators trying to exert their right to eat or shop where they wanted. Music and prayer were integral parts of all the demonstrations I went to, so I’ve included a link to relevant music, performed recently by a few icons of the movement. The last post takes you to a collection of art saluting all civil rights leaders as real icons.
It’s a good day to remember Martin Luther King Jr and the legacy he left all of us. If he were alive today, I think King would be proud of what the civil rights movement accomplished, but not satisfied with the status of a lot of unfinished business.
A Martin Luther Kind memorial is being built on the Mall in Washington, DC. Not only will it honor a great man, but It will retell his story and help us listen more closely to his important words. For more on the memorial, go to today's Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/13/AR2011011304431.html?hpid=features1&hpv=national
I was 17 and new to the University of Maryland when I saw a sign posted on a bulletin board announcing a training session in non-violent action at a nearby church. Now that I was away from home, I could consider doing things like this. After all, I WAS a college freshman, and it WAS 1961.
Contrary to my parents’ hopes and dreams for me to get a well-rounded education, meet some young lawyer at college and marry into comfort, I grew up fully expecting to save the world from injustice, infectious disease and bad music. Not necessarily in that order.
Four years of reading the progressive Methodist Student Movement's (now defunct) motive magazine
plus high school social studies classes taught by two avowed socialists had radicalized me even more than I knew, but just as much as my parents suspected. Motive magazine carried many stories written about or by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., an advocate of the teachings of Gandhi, and a minister of large church in Montgomery, Alabama. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Not surprisingly, my zeal for justice was tied to religion, a big part of my life. Not only was I active in a very liberal Protestant church, but I got even more fired up to right all wrongs -- by osmosis -- through through my part-time job as an pianist/organist and choir accompanist for several churches. That was how I earned money for college.
First, a little history lesson. In spite of its reputation for religious tolerance and enlightenment, parts of the state of Maryland may as well have been in the Deep South in 1961. They may not have had Jim Crow laws, but centuries of tradition forbade people of color to use the toilets at many gas stations or to eat at some restaurants in town. Nobody had to tell them, but little reminders like the one above were hung on the wall, just in case. If Black people wanted to eat, they could go to a restaurant’s kitchen door for carry out. If they needed a toilet, they had to find a service station willing to accommodate them.
In May, 1961, college students from all over started taking commercial buses to the Deep South from Washington DC to desegregate services up and down federal highways. They may not have realized it at the time, but they could have taken north-bound buses to do the same thing! In June of that year, the ambassador to the US from Chad (who wasn’t up on the tradition) had been refused table service at a roadside diner in Maryland. He filed a angry grievance with the US Department of State, without hesitation. Embarrassed, State pressured restaurants and gas stations along major federal highways (including the east-west US 40 and north-south US 1, which cut through the University campus) to be more accommodating to foreign dignitaries. Travelers were advised to wear traditional dress, so they’d be recognized.
The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) jumped all over this humiliating event, sending out students from Bowie State College (then, a black school) to test service at restaurants up and down the Maryland highways. The Route 40 Freedom Rides
were widely publicized, designed to pressure business owners into serving anyone who came in, whether they were black, white, dressed in African garb, or not. By fall, students at the University of Maryland extended the protests to businesses in and around College Park. Eventually, students from Howard University in DC took the protests further south toward the District line and beyond.
In fall of 1961, there still were holdouts in restaurant apartheid, even in College Park, home of the University of Maryland, with its huge population of foreign students. It was incredible! Here I was, a very young, white nobody going to school with the children of diplomats, who couldn't meet them at the Hot Shoppe for coffee or at The Little Tavern for a hamburger. The irony! The bigotry of a country professing justice and freedom for all, when people were being treating like animals just a few miles from the US capitol! I was appalled, and that got my juices flowing.
One October Saturday, I got up early to walk the mile and a half to Embry AME Zion Church in the Lakeland section of College Park, getting there in time for the training program and rally sponsored by CORE.
I should tell you I had never seen anything quite like Lakeland. To say the neighborhood was ramshackle was a gross understatement. This area, just yards away from US Rte1, as well as the state university, was straight out of Tobacco Road. Go here for some background on the community
That morning, some older volunteers taught us about Maryland law and explained the basic theory of non-violent protest. God was on our side, they said, and it was important to make that fact obvious. Do not break any laws. Do not do anything to provoke attack or arrest. Remember: there are laws and there are traditions. We would test the laws, and just hope the police could be trusted to enforce them.
Here’s a copy of a CORE brochure
for protests held at that time in other parts of the state. You’ll see that protesters were told to abide by the local laws. CORE would not send them out unless they were clean cut, well dressed, well mannered and could pass themselves off as just a couple of ordinary folk who wanted to share an ice cream soda with some friends of various colors, in their neighborhood eatery.
Without realizing it, I had just turned a page on the passive life of childhood and had become an activist, before I could even drive without a parent in the car, vote, or buy a beer.
Go on to Walking Down Freedom Road, Part 2
for more of this story.
For the remainder of my freshman year, I participated in the Freedom Ride extension protests whenever I had a spare weekend. For the most part, they were peaceful and successful at integrating restaurants along US-1, in the area around the university, and up toward Baltimore. That's what we set out to do and it worked! The next step -- passing a public accommodations law -- was up to the state legislature.
One weekend (late October or early November, 1961), things got a bit dicey.
I left my dorm early that morning, signing out for College Park, but not listing the church's address. For whatever reason, I didn’t tell anyone -- even my roommate, who didn't approve of my CORE activities -- where I was going or what I was doing.
As instructed, I wore my Sunday dress, little black heels and all-purpose trench coat. My hair was done up in a neat French twist..
CORE sent out a bus, plus a few cars, each carrying two or three protesters, plus driver. One car contained only CORE reps, so they could act as witnesses to whatever happened, I figured. They would not be posting bail for us if we got arrested, however. They made that perfectly clear.
Usually, we went to places like the Little Tavern, Hot Shoppes or family diners. Frankly, I never wanted to eat at the College Park Little Tavern in the first place, but it was important to integrate any business that was part of a national chain.
On this particular Saturday, there was a young, loud, sloppily dressed white guy at the church who clearly was itching to spend some time in jail, as he boasted he had done numerous times in earlier Freedom Rides down south. He even brought along his guitar, just in case. In spite of his enthusiasm and experience, he looked like bad news to me.
Since I was only 17, jail time for me would be spent at a juvenile facility, where I would probably be held until my 18th birthday. I would miss a year of college, a year my parents had already paid for. My dad was out of work and quite depressed. My actions would place a heavy burden on the family. Still, I was prepared to go to jail if necessary, but not interested in promoting the idea. My only hope was to not get stuck going out on a ride with this jerk, but I did.
To continue reading, click on Read More, below right.
Here’s some footage from the early 1960s, showing what it was really like at some of the larger demonstrations. The clips culminate with the August 28, 1963, March for Jobs and Freedom,
where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Our kids and grandkids need to see this. Thank you, Mavis Staples, for keeping the spirit alive and relevant for almost 50 years.
After my sophomore year at the University of Maryland, I got married and moved to DC, where I spent the next 11 years. Washington DC was a predominantly black city at that time and Len and I were white interlopers, poor ones no less.
You may remember 1964. College students descended on the South over summer vacation, to help register voters and open what they called Freedom Schools for young black kids. They called it Freedom Summer, but for three young people, a young black man and at least one middle-aged woman, it should have been called Last Summer.
My husband occasionally sat in as a musician at clubs and, one summer night, he played at a coffee house in DC with three friends of ours, all black. (I was about 20 years old, at the time.) The bass player and singer followed us home, where the four of us stayed up all night listening to jazz, drinking coffee and talking.
The next morning, we all hopped into our old car and headed out to another musician’s house, deep into Northern Virginia. I don’t remember where he lived, but anything more than two miles outside the District was the Deep South. I drove, the bass player sat up front with me and the singer sat in the back talking to my husband.
We drove about 15 miles, part of it on a country four-lane, before I noticed a car following us. I didn’t think much of it at first, but mentioned it and the bass player suggested I slow down to let the car pass us. I did, but when our two cars were neck and neck, the other driver slowed to my pace.
I glanced over and saw two young white guys in the front seat, one driving and one holding a pistol up to his eye with two hands, aiming it at me out the open window.
At first, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I turned back to face the road, stared straight ahead, mumbled something like “Don’t look to your left” and slowed down, hoping they would speed ahead. They didn’t.
We went in tandem like this for a mile or two, slowing down, speeding up, with that gun never losing its potential to blow my head off. Eventually, they must have been satisfied they could shoot us if they felt like it, because they laughed, stomped on the gas and sped off.
I was so shaken I couldn’t drive any more, so the bass player took the wheel. He made a U-turn and took us back to the relative safety of DC. We knew that not only had we dodged four bullets, but we had avoided getting killed in a place where no would have cared enough to find out how or why. If I didn’t get the message of hate at the College Park diner
(follow link to earlier story), I got it that day in Virginia, loud and clear. I made up my mind on the way home that I would never doubt the violence that goes hand in hand with racial hatred, and would never, ever turn away from it again.
James Reeb, 1927-1965
Halfway through college, I got married. Len and I would have been quite happy with a civil ceremony and raucous party, but Maryland law required the blessing of clergy. So, we found a Unitarian minister who agreed to do a small, very informal wedding in July, 1963. I was 19, he was 20. We assumed we would be together forever but it didn't turn out that way, as some of you already know.
We got off to a bad start. Our first six months together were hardly a honeymoon. We rented a small furnished basement in a poor neighborhood, and lived from hand to mouth by waiting tables, sorting mail, taking classified ads and washing cars. Even worse, we found ourselves under an avalanche of misery after being blindsided in a 7-car pile-up on a highway near Baltimore. Both injured and uninsured, we lost our jobs, our driver’s licenses and, tragically, our only valuable possession, a “new” 10-year-old Chevy. It had cost us the equivalent of a month’s rent. I was still trying to finish school, so this was a major setback.
Overwhelmed by the situation, my young husband fell into a deep depression and probably suffered a nervous breakdown. He was immobilized, sleepless and hallucinating. Worst of all, he made a half-serious attempt at suicide.
Looking back, I see how foolish I was to not contact our parents but, at the time, didn't think it was a good idea. None of them had forgiven us for marrying one another, especially while we were so young. They knew about our accident but didn't offer any help, and made it clear we were completely on our own. Instead, I sought help from the kind man who married us, and he referred me to a minister at All Souls Church, just a few blocks from our apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC.
Jim Reeb was a godsend. As assistant minister of a large, inner-city church, he served as chief social worker for an active neighborhood outreach program. Several times a week, I went to his office for counseling on how to help Len through his breakdown. As things improved at home, he gave advice on how we could get out of the pit we had dug for ourselves.
Jim Reeb never pretended to be a therapist but knew a lot. And, it didn't hurt that he had God on his side! I felt at the time -- and still believe -- that without his help, Len would have succeed in doing away with himself. Terrified of being locked up, he refused help for himself, but didn't stand in my way when I said I needed to see Rev. Reeb for my own spiritual needs. It was silly, he said, but he put up with it.
Not only did Jim Reeb step in and support me emotionally, but he suggested I use one of the church’s many pianos for music lessons. He knew a few parishioners who might be interested in piano lessons. Hmmm. I loved that idea!
Until my teaching business got off the ground, Jim gave us one month’s rent and enough money to buy a few groceries. I think that came to about $65. As he predicted, three or four students signed up the first week and, before I knew it, I had almost more work than I could handle.
Those piano lessons brought in enough money to pay our basic bills, and even bus fare to school, once in a while. When it didn't, I collected bottles for refunds. In a few months, Len improved enough that he wanted to go back out into the world, and maybe even work. (Obviously, he wasn’t fine, but I didn’t know much about mental illness at the time.)
Once Len was ready, Jim got him an interview for a sales job at a stationery store on 14th Street, about three blocks from home. Jim also gave him a tweed wool jacket for the interview and a few dollars for a haircut.
Without Jim Reeb’s help, I don’t know what would have happened to us, but it could have been catastrophic. Later that year (1964), as were getting on our feet, Jim Reeb moved his wife and four young children to Boston so he could take a job with the American Friends Service Committee. I sent him a note through All Souls, thanking him for saving at least one of our lives.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Jim Reeb answered the telegram Martin Luther King sent to clergy across the country asking them to join him in Selma, Alabama, and march with him to the state capital. Several hundred protesters had already run into intensive police resistance trying to reach Montgomery that weekend, and had been ordered to stop at the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma.
According to one account, “When ordered to end the march by state troopers, the marchers were given three minutes, but within one and half minutes they were attacked by dogs, beaten with Billy clubs, tear gas, and chased by posses.” (http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0214523/selmamarch.htm#second.)
Jim and two colleagues flew south the next day and, at the end of their first full day in Selma, they were beaten by a group of white men with clubs and pipes. For some reason, Jim didn't reach a hospital for several hours. He died there from his injuries three days later. He was 38.
To read a portion of the eulogy Martin Luther King gave at Jim Reeb’s memorial service, click Read More.
In case you missed it, here is a link to an hour-long video of the PBS program In Performance at The White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement
. Those of you who were involved in the 1960s (or wish you had been) will probably love this concert as much as I did. http://video.pbs.org/video/1410865290/
In his introduction, President Obama reminds viewers that the civil rights movement had a sound track, was "sustained by music" and “sharpened by protest songs.”
This program brings back some of the real greats, even Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, whose historical importance overshadows their weak performances. They are, after all, almost 70 years old! Smokey Robinson, on the other hand, is even older and, as far as I’m concerned, stole the show with his performance of Abraham, Martin and John
. When you think about where he was singing and when (the eve of Lincoln’s birthday), you wonder how he got through the song at all.
This very special uninterrupted concert features the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Mellencamp (one of my second cousins!), Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson and Natalie Cole, and others.
To go directly to Smokey Robinson, scroll ahead to 45:35. For a snippet from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Blind Boys of Alabama, go to 49:15.
Here’s a link to Icons of the Civil Rights Movement, an art and history exhibit celebrating important leaders in civil rights, including Martin Luther King. The artist, Pamela Chatterton-Purdy, has her own story to tell:
“To say that this “movement” was critical in the influence of our lives over the past 45 years is an understatement!
In 2004 my husband and I took a trip through the South, traveling with 100 high school students to all the milestones of the “Movement.” This “Civil Rights Sojourn” ended with a visit to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered. This motel is now a powerful Civil Rights Museum.
2008 marks the 40th year since the assassination of MLK. The exhibit, “Icons of The Civil Rights Movement,”will travel during this commemorative year.”
I hope you will pass along this link to people who need to know more about this period in recent US history:
The Freedom Riders, 1961, part of the Icons of the Civil Rights Movement exhibit, available at http://www.chatterton-purdyart.com/?page_id=9