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

Long Live the King

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Español: Dr. Martin Luther King dando su discurso “Yo tengo un sueño” durante la Marcha sobre Washington por el trabajo y la libertad en Washington, D.C., 28 de agosto de 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    January’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ushers in February, the newer incarnation of which is Black History Month. Both are times that memories flood my mind.
    During the last year of Martin Luther King’s life, I was vice president and Housing chairman of a Pennsylvania branch of the NAACP. With influence far beyond our few numbers we negotiated many issues with city leaders who assumed we were hordes of angry black people ready to threaten the peace at any provocation.
    What the city fathers didn’t know, or deign to find out, was that whites were among our active members. When asked to serve as president, as a Mexican-American, I felt African Americans should always lead that distinguished movement at all levels.

                                             Baltimore 1968          
    When King, Jr. was assassinated, a delegation of four headed to Atlanta for the memorial–three young black officers and me. We took my car late at night, one of my companions drove while I slept in a back seat till the driver mistakenly drove off the interstate and into Baltimore, which was under strict curfew and resembled a ghost town. As owner of the car I retook the wheel to try and find quick exit from the city, but my first turn took us headlong into a phalanx of Baltimore’s finest, who surrounded us but pulled only me from the auto.
    Blacks were, and are, used to abusive police treatment. Ironically, the police didn’t know what to do with me. We learned later that many areas were under orders to avoid mistreatment of blacks lest it incite more riots. At first I was assumed to be white, another irony that could have been worse for me, but one of the men in blue wasn’t so sure.
    Shoved firmly again the car, I took a barrage of repeated questions while title and registration were checked. All my responses were made quietly and I avoided vociferously demanding “my rights,” to avoid an emotional reaction on the part of law enforcement. I was asked if my surname were African and I repeatedly said I was a person of color, and left them to figure it out from there.
    From the blare of police radio reports, more urgent incidents elsewhere were deemed more threatening than we were. Finally the officer in charge ordered me back in the car and barked rapid-fire directions that none of us could understand or remember; told us to get out of Baltimore and, if found again, we would be subject to arrest.
    The rest was like a movie: finding ourselves quickly lost again, we saw that the broad, empty city avenues had at every few corners a sole armed policeman with a dog. I drove the middle of the streets while the passenger seat occupant asked for the nearest highway exit. Perhaps unthinking, the solitary sentry gave clear directions while we roared off and he yelled orders for us to stop. A couple of quick turns brought us to the interstate exit–but the “up” ramp was blocked. Terrified, we hung onto our seats as I sped up the down ramp.
    But a convoy of National Guardsmen appeared and came right at us on their way into the city. Everything happened so fast: I pulled to one side of the ramp at high speed, right tires off the pavement, and we flew past the sleepy-eyed faces of Guardsmen deployed from home in the mid of night.
    On the interstate again, there were no other cars at the moment, but we were speeding south on north-bound lanes–daring not to go north and have to take an exit again–and had to cross the median before we were caught going the wrong way. In most places, the median was too deep to cross and elsewhere not shallow enough to chance a crossing. But as a few headlights appeared in the distance, we felt little choice: again we held tight and went flying towards the other lanes, wheel treads biting into whatever ground was solid enough to keep our momentum.
    Safely back on our way, no one said a word for several miles, till one of my black colleagues said, “You sure know how to ‘talk soft’ to policemen, don’t you?” and we all burst into loud, nervous laughter.

                            Virginia–and On to Atlanta
    Thereafter the trip included a risky mid-of-night stop at a black farm home in the Virginia countryside, childhood home of one of our quartet, where remaining family had waited up for us, warm food at the ready. They were so proud of their son’s involvement in the King-led struggle for equality, and smiles were all around. I had not known of this planned detour but it began to grow on me that this could become a desperate situation: if anyone–anyone– white had seen us on the way in, things could take a terrible turn, only because I might be mistaken for a white man.
    Anyone who knows of the fate of the three young whites who had been killed and buried in Philadelphia, Mississippi only a year later, can guess why I was unnerved. Soon enough, however, we were on our way again.
    Arrival in Atlanta included our staying in a black hotel, and word spread quickly that there might be a white person among them, leading to concern as to who I was and why I was there. As we settled into our room heads burst in the door demanding reason for my presence. My colleagues had to say repeatedly, “He’s cool, he’s one of us in NAACP.”
    After little sleep we took to Atlanta’s streets, roaming from demonstration to demonstration and speech after fiery speech while high-profile civil rights leaders urged calm amid the tense emotions. I stopped in one of the more well-known black restaurants and saw Jesse Jackson at a table with a colleague; I sat but momentarily to say hello, given that he and I knew each other from the same floor of the same dorm while we were in seminary in Chicago only three years before.
    While there, Jesse was known as a quiet and highly-respected, up-and-coming black leader. He was part of Operation Breadbasket in the city but few knew how close he had become, in short order, to Dr. King. At this moment he was still emotionally shock-worn from being at King’s side when the leader was gunned down in Memphis. The memorial was in Atlanta because it was King’s home and where he had grown up in his dad’s local congregation, the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. And that is where the son would lie in state as lines thronged the streets and sidewalks around the building to view him for the last time.
    As for Jesse, only later would he become the face of the movement, known for sharp and inspirational oratory–and in time a presidential candidate.
    A last memory is of my being the campus of Spelman College, a black women’s institution, because of word that a major demonstration might occur there. Though outdoors and on spacious grounds, we were all packed in like sardines. Physical balance was not an easy thing to keep, and when a cry went up–perhaps only a rumor–that a car had passed carrying Bobby Kennedy, the sea of humanity surged in that direction. Despite all that had happened en route to Atlanta, my most fearful moment came as we all became powerless to the surge.
    I’m certain that all knew, as I did, that to fall was to risk being trampled. Each person pushed against the other, hoping not to lose balance. Some in parts of the crowd did fall and I have no idea what their fate may have been. But the very thought of that moment resurrects the terror of that time.
    People find it hard to believe that our vulnerability throughout the journey, from Baltimore to Atlanta, are matters that I thought absolutely nothing of for many years. But then again, it wasn’t so long ago. Now, on reflection, I keenly realize that it was perilous odyssey.
    At the time, we were just young soldiers in King, Jr.’s army. As we all know, he didn’t live a long time. But long may he live.

8 Responses to “Long Live the King”

  1. Reblogged this on northdekalbmall.

    • Thank you very much.This posting is a reminder that there were members of “King’s Army” working for civil rights in places and times other than Selma. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for posting, John!

  3. This is a facinating story. I regret that I was not physically involved. but the movement had my interest and verbal support. I was struggling to support a wife and young child on a bare bones wage at that time. I had and continue to have a deep respect for Dr. King. I often wonder how it would have changed things if he had lived. I want to thank you for the courage and commitment that you had in taking an active part in that movement.

  4. I read your King blog with great interest and admiration. I am a life member of NAACP and even received an award from the Kentucky NAACP for civil rights activity, but I can’t match your courageous record. The closest I ever came in terms of danger was back in 1964 (or 63) when I was working on my doctorate at Duke. I took some undergraduates to southern Virginia one weekend to do voter registration. Suffice it to say that we were not always met with a cooperative attitude by the people who were supposed to be registering the would-be African American voters. One memory I have is that several people we contacted saw no reason to register because they doubted it would make any difference. On the other hand, some regarded this act as a moment of great pride. They asked that we come back in an hour so that they could make the trip to register in their Sunday best clothes.
    Thanks for what you did.

    Eric Mount, your “old” classmate

  5. Read and gosh, when your predictions are right, they’re right!! Add this one from me: You will be underwhelmed by the tsunami of comment from our classmates…mustn’t forget “your place.”

  6. MLK was the greatest speaker I ever heard in America in the 20th century. When I teach public speaking, I always present videotapes and audiotapes of MLK. Imagine what our nation would be like if he had not been killed by a conspiracy of racists, and had continued to lead the civiil rights movement, and had been elected President! Wow! I’ve worked for Obama in both elections, but as a speaker he can’t begin to match MLK.

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