Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Most of the parades and festivals occurred over the weekend. There’s not a lot to do on this rather cool day here in Central Florida but simply reflect.
I was both fascinated as well as terrified by King during my childhood. Terrified because so many around me found him threatening. Everything about our entire “way of life“ seemed in jeopardy to hear folks my parents’ age talk.
But even then I was already questioning whether that “way of life” was worth preserving. And here is where King fascinated me. He spoke deliberately, choosing his words with care. He endured abuse that I don’t think I could endure even now. He was eloquent. He was passionate. His words made me think. And the crowds he drew suggested he was hitting a nerve in the very soul of an America just starting to come to grips with its malevolent love affair with racism.
By the time I got to high school, King had broadened his vision to include the injustices of the Vietnam War. Now he had become public enemy number one, well beyond the racist backwoods and bayous of the South. King was tackling the behemoth of the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower, a military man himself, had warned us. He was calling us on the lies we told ourselves about falling dominos and protecting democracy. He knew that the profits of the chemical and munitions companies were being paid in blood of Southeast Asian peasants and American teenagers, teenaged boys like me who were looking at the draft.
King could not stand it. He boldly said, Enough!”
And so they killed him, putting him out of our misery.
A Smoldering Pot Erupts
The news of his assassination traveled quickly around the track meet at Groveland that dark night in April 1968. Groveland had long been the site of racist strife which a mere 19 years previously had erupted into riot that nearly destroyed its black section on the east side of town across the tracks. Before it was over, four young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman would be railroaded into prison, only three of whom would survive to see even a modicum of justice.
By coincidence, my Father happened to be in Groveland the night of those riots. He had come up SR 33 from Polk City to Groveland on his way back to Gainesville where he was a graduate student at the University of Florida only to be greeted by Sheriff Willis McCall, himself a Klansman, his deputies and national guardsmen who had been called in to restore the peace (though not the justice). My Dad often recalled how terrifying it had been to come face to face with soldiers manning a machine gun in the middle of the street and being ordered to turn his car around and head back the direction from which he had come. Groveland was under martial law, the soldiers told him.
My Father did not question their decree, turning his car around to head back the 27 miles to Polk City. He’d need to find a new route back to Gainesville that night.
When news of King’s murder filtered around the stadium that night in Groveland, the tensions that smoldered there on a good day had exploded into outrage. Bands of young men began gathering, picking up rocks, sticks and bottles as they went. Our coach ordered all of us to our bus immediately. The track meet was over.
Thereafter occurred one of the most terrifying moments of my life. The young boys blocked the entrance to the gated parking lot, sticks, bottles and rocks in hand. Our coach, a white man, screamed at us to get down on the floor of the bus and cover our heads. He then screamed out the window “Get out of the way or I’ll run your fucking asses over!”
And then he gunned the engine.
The bus lurched toward the narrow opening in the fence. At the last moment, the young men scattered. But not before launching a volley of bottles, rocks and sticks at the bus, breaking a number of windows. Rocks and bottles came flying through open windows into the bus and onto the floor where we lay huddled. But no one was hurt badly. No one was run over. And suddenly we were free of the confrontation and on our way home.
It was a very quiet half hour bus ride back to our school that night.
This would be the prelude for Days of Rage that would erupt across the country. Entire black business districts of inner cities would be put to the torch. And the repercussions of this angry response would be the exodus of many white residents from the inner cities of our country. The interior of many cities still bear the scars of this moment in our country’s history.
I cannot imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. would have felt honored by this response. But I have no doubt he would have understood it. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he often said. And his slaying in Memphis so many years ago was simply one point along a seemingly endless line of ongoing justice denied.
The next day at school a young black girl would collapse on the floor in tears when a callous white male classmate came up to her, pointed his fingers at her like a gun, and said “Bang, bang. You’re dead.” We had no riots at our school then though a couple of years later racial tensions would come to a boil over our school mascot, the Rebels, and school song, Dixie. But that day, I felt very little, numb with disbelief and overwhelmed by a very heavy sadness.
Come So Far, So Far Yet to Go
I look back on those tense days of so long ago and sigh. In many ways, we have come so far from the days of segregation and Jim Crow. In other ways, we have so far to go. We live in a time when racism – both that which is unrecognized and disowned by so many as well as that gladly celebrated in this age of Trumpism with its calling of our national Shadow out to play – seems to be making a comeback. In some ways, the journey toward justice feels like it is in reverse.
The hopes so many of us held that America was gradually coming to grips with its original sins of slavery and the Conquest have been dimmed by marches in Charlottesville and a president who legitimizes white supremacists as “nice people.” The legacy of an ongoing diet of thinly veiled dog whistles and blatant appeals to violence against those designated as enemies has been an explosion of hate crimes across a wide spectrum of non-WASP targets from immigrant children on our borders to mosques and synagogues in our nation’s cities.
I continue to believe that love always wins. But I know it will not just happen on its own. We will not be delivered of our fear and loathing by a deity who swoops down to intervene in our history of racism, doing our hard work for us. If we are to come to grips with our Shadow, we are going to have to look it directly in the eyes. And we don’t have to look far to find it; it resides within the confines of every human soul.
This day I give thanks for the prophetic life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. All these years later, he continues to fascinate me though he no longer terrifies me. What does terrify me is the fear driven responses that continue to be evoked by his call for justice, a call that will not and cannot ever go away, no matter how ignored, denied or suppressed it may become. The only way past these fears is through them.
The arc of the moral universe may be long, indeed, but I continue to believe it bends toward justice. This day I pledge to continue doing my part in that struggle.
Happy Birthday, ferocious gentle prophet.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020