Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

On the birthday of MLK

The night Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, four of us—small-town, small-college, white boys—followed the Gulf of Mexico's eastern shore on an all-night trek from south Florida to New Orleans. It was spring break, 1968, only a few months from the summer that seemed, even at the time, to change all of our lives.

Lyndon B. Johnson had withdrawn from the Presidential race just a few nights earlier. We'd heard the news at a dance on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale, while hundreds of bodies jerked and squirmed to the bashing bass of the Rolling Stones, pumped out by some utility band up in front on a makeshift stage.

The lead singer had announced it, yelled it through a screeching public-address system as if all the partiers had just nailed down a great upset. "LB-J.'s quit!" he yelled. "L.B.J.'s out of the race!" Momentarily politicized, the whole lot of us raised our fists in the official power gesture of my generation and screamed out our joy before the massive beat resumed.

It was early evening several days later when we heard about Dr. King's death over the AM band on the radio in that '62 Chevy with the Iowa plates.

We were on our way to New Orleans' French Quarter, sin city, four lusty guys, tired and sun-burned, traveling along some several hundred comfortable miles south of our own evangelical Christianity.

All night long, from the time we'd scarfed down cheap hamburgers for late supper, through the next morning's first whispered glow behind us, the radio kept spilling news about King's death — news stories interrupting music, statements being read by just about anybody big enough to merit media time, memorials and obituaries likely produced and taped months before a man by the name of James Earl Ray had even known about a garbage strike in Memphis, the event which brought King to the place where he would be shot.

The sun wore a heavy mask of gulf fog that morning when light finally opened our eyes to the coast. I don't remember where we were exactly, but the chore of keeping ourselves awake made us pull over at the nearest dive, however seedy.

It was still before six, the morning dressed in haze. Two guys kept right on sleeping in the back seat, but Larry and I walked up to the door of a greasy spoon and found it very much awake.

What we saw inside remains as the most vivid picture I took during 1968 spring break. It was a party, and the place was full of rednecks, open bottles standing on the tables, even though the place was not a bar.

A sign up near the cash register told us that all proceeds that day would go to the Klan. The jukebox wailed out music I'd never heard before, half rock 'n' roll, half-countly, all thick with racist spit. I remember wanting to write down the words as we sat there and waited for our hotcakes. I wanted to remember them. But I was afraid. These men were men I'd never seen before, men another man knows as dangerous, just by sight.

We had walked right into an all-night party--all-male, all-white, and all hate, a whopping good celebration of a dead body sprawled in a mass of blood on some Memphis hotel balcony.

We sat quietly and ate a breakfast served up, ironically, by a cook whose black face appeared then disappeared above the window shelf where plates full of breakfast came up miraculously from the back.

The partiers were oblivious to us. As I remember it now, years later, we sat there and ate hotcakes as if something invisible sat between us, as if some omniscient theater director had staged this moment for us, something we'd never seen before and will likely never see again.

That’s what I remember best about the night Dr. King was murdered. That’s what I know of unalloyed racist hate.

But Martin Luther King had come into my life already several years earlier, when my friend's father, a good man, asked me to go along with him to a meeting, a meeting spread around in whispers and fleeting glances, a get-together of like minds in a huge mansion, on the bluffs above Lake Michigan in a small Wisconsin city near the town where I grew up.

It was the middle of the Cold War, and I was a boy — barely 16, an evangelical Christian, a sworn enemy of atheistic communism, a patriotic American youth who that very fall wrote a civics essay about our American responsibility in Southeast Asia in the face of the global communist menace. I still have that essay, written delicately in a fine cursive hand.

We sat on folding chairs on the lower half of that mansion — not just steel folding chairs, but padded folded chairs — in straight rows, facing a screen. The meeting was opened in prayer.

I remember feeling excited about being in that place, as if we were banded together like the disciples, doing some upper-room plotting to determine what measure of righteousness America really needed. Invitation to the mansion had come only by word of mouth, and I felt privileged to be there.

The feature of that evening's meeting was a slide/tape presentation featuring Martin Luther King caught in candid shots talking to people who the taped voice insisted were communists. This was Wisconsin, after all, home to Senator McCarthy.

I remember the clearly stated message of the presentation because I knew my own father somehow believed it: that behind the movement for civil rights in America, the Russian bear--atheist communism itself--sat back calmly and waited, like some forest cousin, to devour the honey sweetness of American liberty.

I respected my friend's-father, the man who'd asked me to come along; I still do, very much. Maybe that's why in my memories of that furtive mansion meeting is complicated by my own respect for the man and his devotion, even love of country, of culture, of home.

Maybe that is why those two moments in my life — a all-night bayou party and an evening's anti-communist meeting, shrouded in secrecy and glutted with conspiracy theory, both virulently racist — seem almost to clash in tone and spirit, while the line that separates them is actually thread-thin.

Most of us do not find hate particularly attractive. Love redeems us, cleanses us, after all. I've never felt any affinity with the men in the all-night diner, but I still admire the man who brought me along to the mansion, even though that night and forever since I've not shared his politics.

In those moments when I feel latent racism running in me—as I do—I know that its source is often least recognizable and most unmanageable when it emerges from love.
Hate is not one of the seven deadly sins, oddly enough, although it has a kissing cousin in Wrath.

The king of seven deadlines, to the world of medieval theologians and to the world we know today, is still pride, pride in self first of all, but also pride in culture, in country, in race—pride that sometimes upholsters itself in the soft fabrics and gentle lines of love.

I wish, sometimes, it were easier. But for that lesson, this morning--King's birthday--I'm thankful.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

James, that was excellent! One of the finest things I've read in awhile. I'm a younger guy, so I really appreciate the way you told it. Thanks.