Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend memory

Mine was a typical United States family. Two of my mother’s relatives fought for the Union and two of my father’s for the Confederacy during the Civil War. My grandmother’s best friend was an ex-slave, Miranda Russell, and Grandma named her third child, my father, Russell after her. (Of course she gave him a middle name after her favorite writer — Edgar  — as in “The Raven” Poe.) My father attended college on his football talents and his teammates were all African American as was most of his platoon in World War II. My family admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was twelve fifty years ago when he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. I remember sending folks from church to Mississippi to help with voter registration and holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” at camp. I desperately wished I were just a little bit older. My parents were … liberal, but didn’t see any need to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement living in the peacefully desegregated and surface-calm upper Midwest.

Everything changed.  My father was a labor organizer and negotiator. In April 1968 he went to Memphis, Tennessee to write a contract for the Railway Brotherhood of Clerks. He couldn’t afford the hotel restaurant so he and his buddies decided to go down the street to a diner. They were four men — one from Cheyenne, Wyoming, one from Omaha, Nebraska, one from the Quad cities that straddle the Illinois/Iowa border and my father from Des Moines. They were all white men. When they finished dinner and walked outside, the road was filled with demonstrating African American sanitation workers involved in the strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis.

Blocked from their hotel, the four men asked for help from a policeman who was standing there, and he said – “You just follow me, boys.” Holding his billy club at head level, he started swinging and smashed a pathway clear for them. Their clothes became speckled with the blood of the strikers he hit. They were terrified of him and of the crowd and so like sheep they kept on walking. King was assassinated later that night, but my father was already changed.

Visitors to Memphis were sent on buses to the airport. The Railway Brotherhood finished their contract in Kansas City a month later.

When my father came home that night he told me this – it did not matter if I never had been prejudiced, it did not matter if I had never acted with intolerance or stood by intolerance silently. Even if I never used one bigoted word, the racism of this country was my personal responsibility. The path for me – the path of comfort and education and well-being – had been swept clear by the pain and blood of others — the native people the white colonists found here and the African people they dragged from their homes in chains. Because that path had been cleared for us, we were personally responsible until everyone could walk freely and with pride.

It motivated him in his own industry and the memory of his memory has never left me.

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13 Responses to Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend memory

  1. rezrevres says:

    What a powerful story, that so many born into privilege they’ve never previously perceived, can now read and hopefully recognize themselves. Thank you for sharing for I’m sure it took a certain form of personal courage.

  2. Emily Rose says:

    What an incredible story. Thanks for sharing! I’ve posted this to FB in the hopes that more will find it.

    • Maren says:

      Thank you so very much. In fact, I did so as well this morning and it will be interesting in the strange electronic universe what “friends” we have who overlap.

  3. What a powerful story! Thank you SO much for sharing it. And it makes Russ more clear in his commitments, to my mind. I think there is nothing ordinary, Maren, about having a grandmother whose best friend was a former slave. And nothing ordinary about having a father who was in Memphis that night. The lesson he left you was in my family, too, though from a different thread, still powerfully there. And the same choked frustration in talking about it, in a white world that was uncomprehending, in a country that denied to itself that such things happened, while just out of camera view violence and blood ran in the streets.

    • Maren says:

      Thanks Nancy — and Cenia Belle, my grandmother, lived in Boone’s Creek Tennessee, east of Knoxville, just shy of the NC border. Now, you know Russ, there could be some embroidery on any of his stories later but I was there when he first told it!

  4. Mary Beth Mankin says:

    Oh, Maren, how powerful your story is! Thank you for sharing. I, too, will share it. Might we all become more sensitive to the price others have paid. I continue to thank God for Martin Luther King, Jr., his dreams and his courage — and I am thankful for you and your witness.

  5. Maren says:

    Thank you, Mary Beth.

  6. Cheryl Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Maren. C

  7. Elaine Bolitho says:

    Thank you maren for sharingthis incredibly moving story. Blessings,Elaine

  8. Erice Fairbrother says:

    Hi Maren – thank you for this – it is really a very moving account and quite a different perspective from what we get here on American history.

    Thank you

    Erice

  9. Dawn Shippee says:

    HI, Maren. Getting home from MA and trying to catch up, I’m glad I did not leave reading this to another time. It is a powerful story–a powerful truth that now will never leave me.
    Thank you
    Dawn

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