Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

Coming Down the Mountain

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have...

Image via Wikipedia

These words were meant to be posted earlier but, well, shots rang out again, this time in Arizona. How ironic that we were only days away from commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a victim of gun violence.

He had been to the mountain-top, a “peak experience” perhaps, but the trip down is often disappointing, if not perilous. We are familiar with Moses’ legendary ascent, followed by his subsequent descent to a people who, in their faithlessness, had fashioned a god bearing no resemblance to the one he had encountered on high.

Call that a bummer, and it brings to mind King’s own “peak” experience, which he related not in happy terms but with a warning that he saw also the gathering clouds of his own doom. He might not get there with them, he said, in reference to the “promised land” of racial equality, but they would get there as a people. Clearly, he had written both his own epitaph and a vision of the future.

Following his assassination, I and three young black leaders left for Atlanta and his funeral, to represent our Branch of the NAACP of which I was vice president and housing chair. A special called night meeting of mine obliged us to leave late and drive through the dark.

We felt it best to take my car, given that I was the only non-African American. Willard, branch president, drove the first leg while I slept, only to be awakened when he inadvertently drove into Baltimore, which was under curfew. I retook the wheel and turned the first corner right into a cadre of the city’s law enforcement and a circle of police cars.

No one in the nation knew what they were doing in the shocking aftermath of King’s death but it at least briefly changed the racial dynamic. At no point were any of my colleagues pulled from the car or even spoken to. I was hauled out, pinned against the driver’s door and submitted to a string of repetitive, threatening questions as to who I was, where was I going, and why the hell was I in Baltimore.

I relied on instinct and answered all queries quietly and without impatience while license and registration were checked. Some officers had clubs nearly the length of baseball bats, and one crouched down and struck the street hard in rapid succession, the noise of which echoed down the empty city corridors.

They were unsure if I were black or white and, if the latter, I realized that in a strange twist of fate I could be the sacrificial lamb, not those in the car. The police did not guess I was hispanic but couldn’t afford to be violent toward a person of “color,” given the circumstances. Luckily, I had enough to create uncertainty.

I will also add that you haven’t lived till the end of one of those clubs has been rammed into your kidney, endowing pain to last for many a year.

At last, gruff orders were barked in my face to get back in the car, leave their fair city and, if stopped again, all bets were off that we would get to Atlanta. I risked asking for directions, which were spat at me so quickly and vaguely that neither I nor my traveling companions could begin to remember.

Predictably, we were soon lost again, and the only auto on the streets. At most corners were armed policemen accompanied by dogs and I stayed in the center of a wide avenue while we rolled down the window and quickly asked for the interstate. The cop told us but as we sped away he yelled for us to stop, and we feared bullets might come our way.

When found, the exit to the highway was blocked so I went up the down ramp for incoming traffic, only to meet a National Guard convoy coming straight at us. I moved over as far as possible, at high speed, all happening too fast for the convoy, filled as it was with guardsmen still groggy from interrupted sleep.

Once on the highway, the worst option could be to go back north as might be expected, so I drove wrong-way again to a better part of the median and half-spun, half-flew to the south lanes for for D.C. and Richmond.

It was like an action movie but neither thrilling nor fun. A few miles down the road, one of my friends broke the silence to say that I “sure knew how to ‘talk soft’” to the police back there. And they all burst into laughter.
They of course were used to being arrested and yanked out of cars, usually over nothing, something the rest of us cannot understand. But it would help it we could.

Most American communities need training in anti-racism, and a good place to start is in the schools. I know, because while King, Jr. died many years ago, it was only last year in my charming New England town that our kids weren’t allowed to hear, in their classrooms, the first black American president speak on the value of education.

We’re still comin’ down the mountain.

One Response to “Coming Down the Mountain”

  1. So powerfully written – as usual – I felt I was along; and so very sadly current, still, today.
    I taught for years during the first (nationally) “voluntary” desegregation in an all-white St. Louis County school district. The “N” word was, of course, most common, and others and these were spoken with emphasis and great hilarity in the teachers’ lounge, sometimes for my benefit. I tired quickly of arguing, using logic… water on a gasoline fire…too much still true today.
    Don’t stop, John.

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