I don’t remember Martin Luther King in 1962 or ’63 when I was 8 or 9 or 10. I don’t remember him when I lived in the South. I must have been sheltered from all the strife and unrest that was going on during those years. I would not have understood.
I do remember him in the early years of being a teenager in Pennsylvania. I remember watching him give his speeches on television. He was on fire. I watched the unrest, the riots, the musicians of the time rallying around his cause. It was the 1960′s in America. And unless you lived through them, it’s hard to describe what it was like. No one was untouched. Everything was polarized.
There was the essence of pop culture, the Brady Bunch, the Jackson 5, the Partridge Family, living right along side Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Burnt orange polyester bled into red and blue tie-dye. You had Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm (first African American candidate from a major party for President of the United States); you had Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant.
And TV news, it wasn’t spun the way it is spun today. I remember getting home from junior high and seeing black and white footage of Vietnam splattered all over the television. Gruesome images. We will never see a war the way we saw that one. Not the average person. Not someone like me.
I couldn’t watch. I wanted to cling to the things that gave me hope. I was caught in-between in the mid to late 1960′s: too young to be out there protesting, too old to not understand what was happening. And I was different, too. I never fit in to what it meant to be a mainstream American teenage girl.
It would take many years to grow into my own skin. When religion is telling you you’re a sin, and psychology sees a basic component of your identity as a sickness (as it did until the early 1970′s), you learn pretty quickly to fend for yourself. And live with big secrets.
It’s not like that anymore. At least, not for me. There are those who choose to remain closeted. But I have grown comfortable with who I am. There are many reasons for that. Lifestyles that are different have become strangely trendy. And my family is understanding, nurturing, and embrace me for the person I am (though back then, we just didn’t talk about it).
It was public support, paradigm shifts and movements, that taught me it was okay to question. And public figures who gave me hope. Leaders like Martin Luther King. For me, he was a humanitarian. Non-violent. Peace loving. Supportive of anyone who was different. He wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions. He would no longer be silenced. And that’s what I remember.
When I listened to Enrique Rivera’s piece, I was moved to write about King. It opened me up to remembering that he stood for everyone, for the civil rights of all people. I cried the day he died. My parents probably cried, too. I’ve been thinking about those who lived by his side; many are still alive. They risked their lives, too. How many thousands of people did he inspire?
We had to read the John Lewis book, Walking with the Wind for one of Natalie’s retreats. He gave a riveting account of what it was like to meet Dr. King at such a young and impressionable age. I remember King was in a secret location, and Lewis walked through a dark hall into a small room to shake his hand. Later, as a Freedom Rider, Lewis would be beaten by a mob in Montgomery, and, finally, rise to the House of Representatives, representing Georgia.
I saw a documentary of an Iranian woman who worked in government under the Shah in the 1960′s, I can’t remember her name, but she recounted what it was like to run up to Martin Luther King on one of his marches and have him actually know who she was, to say her name, shake her hand, and know that she was fighting the good fight. She was on fire for human rights, too.
Last night I watched a PBS show about Temple Grandin, a 60-year-old woman with autism. When she was born, they blamed her mother, stating she was cold and unfeeling and that’s why Temple turned out the way she did. Turns out, it was Temple’s father who was cold and unfeeling, and her mother who kept her out of an institution.
Later, two scientists, working at different geographic places at the same time, unknown to each other, came up with the word autism. More research and they realized it was neurologically related, not anything to do with the mother, the family, or lack of intelligence.
Anyone who knows Temple’s story, knows that she’s now the rock star of the cattle industry. She went on to write books, to develop the squeeze machine, and to work on humane conditions and rights for cattle as they are led to the slaughter. If you can’t stop people from slaughtering and killing cows for food, you can at least create practical solutions that make the journey more humane. That was her thinking. I was glued to the TV. I couldn’t believe her story.
And that’s what Martin Luther King means to me.
When I think of him, I remember Katherine, the woman who ironed for my grandfather in 1963, and riding along to drive her home in the poorer part of town. I remember Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential Campaign. I remember John Lewis walking with the wind in his family’s shotgun shanty. I remember Temple, fighting for her cows. I remember the monk who set himself on fire during Vietnam. And in remembering all of them, I remember that part of me.
-posted on red Ravine, Friday, January 25th, 2008
-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – MARTIN LUTHER KING