This month marks the 32nd observation of Black History Month. Begun in 1976, the special designation is supposed to help all of us learn more about the crucial role the black race has played in the history of civilization. As an educator (but not as a student myself), I have learned about the contributions of such notables as Poet Langston Hughes, Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and, most certainly, Scientist George Washington Carver, who made quite a name for himself in Alabama.
Over the years, the schools I have served have done an admirable job of making these outstanding citizens and others known to our students. I suspect, however, that the students are like me. These historical monikers are simply names on a page; we cannot comprehend the magnitude of their services to mankind because we did not live in their time.
I did, however, live during the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I just didn't realize it, nor did I "get it" until last month. There is a part of me that is ashamed to admit this, of course. After all, I am well-educated, theoretically, and should have made more of an overt effort to absorb some of this information.
Last month, for the fifth straight year, I was asked to create a video in honor of the 140 or so students from my county and the neighboring county who had been selected to represent their school as its Red Ribbon Award winner. The Red Ribbon campaign is the oldest drug education/prevention program in the country. Winners typically plan something for their entire school to spotlight substance abuse, but in the last several years, my area has expanded the program to include assisting hurricane victims and helping the needy.
Each year, a theme is selected by the Drug Education Council; we have used such warm and fuzzy concepts as "Have a Heart," "Respect," and "Shining Stars". This year, they selected "I Have a Dream" - equally warm and fuzzy, or so I thought.
Usually, I begin by finding some appropriate music to get my creative juices flowing. This time, obviously, I was drawn to the speech of Dr. King. I looked it up online and was pleased to find not only the text of the oratory but a complete video as well.
I was seven years old on August 28, 1963, the day the speech was given in Washington, D.C. I read the speech on January 3, 2008, and I was seven again. I was back in rural Mississippi, the heat was bearing down on me, and I was speaking to our maid, Tidney. Yes, we were poor as church mice, yet we could afford a maid. Actually, "we" didn't afford a maid; instead, my two grandmothers each shared "their" maid with us. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, my maternal grandmother, Mema, sent over Princie Mae from her house three blocks away. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my paternal grandmother, Mary Ma (pronounced quickly, as if it were one name - Marema), sent Tidney through our back fence, past the vegetable garden and the chickens being fattened for the table, to cook and clean for us while my mother took college courses.
It seemed Mom was always taking a class or two here or there - some were at night at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville; others were even farther away at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. On rare occasions, I would ride with her and hang out on that lovely old campus, dreaming of the day when I would be a big coed myself. While I never thought about it at the time, looking back on it now I don't recall ever seeing a single black student. In fact, Mom's much-anticipated college degree arrived the exact same year that south Mississippi finally integrated its schools, nearly twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education determined that segregated schools were inherently unequal. We didn't do much of anything in a big hurry in south Mississippi in those days, but this flagrant disregard for the law was clearly more than a case of simply dragging our feet.
The passage from the speech that erased the past 44 years was this one:
"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
I read it again. It was all true. My beloved Tidney lived with her seven children in an unpainted shack ten miles out of town. The tiny wood frame structure was unheated, uncooled, and had no running water. It was surrounded by a barren yard that was always full of barefoot kids; at least they enjoyed the shade of some ancient oaks. She had been in Mary Ma's employment far longer than I had been alive. They were about the same age, Mary Ma and Tidney, but Tidney easily could have passed for forty years older. She had a white apron and no teeth. Mary Ma also had no teeth, but she was able to afford a brilliant set of false ones.
Mary Ma and Big Daddy lived in Hiwanee, an area so small it's now lost its post office and no longer appears on any maps. When they moved to town, they continued to make the trek out to Tidney's every day to keep her gainfully employed. The truth was, Tidney was considered a part of our family. She called me "Baby" and referred to my parents as Little Mama and Little Daddy. It never struck me that she sacrificed spending time with her own children to take care of me.
To feed her brood, Tidney worked hard, every day, for $3 per day. They subsisted on welfare handouts of blocks of butter and cheese and vats of peanut butter; my father so loved the real butter that we regularly traded with her for one of the giant five pound blocks. Sometimes we gave her a chicken; other times, she settled for black-eyed peas and butterbeans that she herself had shelled and "put up" in our freezer.
She faithfully watched General Hospital on our black and white TV as she ironed my dad's khaki work pants and shirts every single day. Using a Coke bottle capped with a homemade salt-shaker style top, she sprinkled water on the tough material to make the wrinkles behave; her own family never had clothes that needed ironing, which was a good thing, since they didn't own an iron or a board.
I think the little girls shared three or four cotton dresses, all so faded that the real color was now unknown. The boys typically wore cutoff jeans, most of which had belonged to my brother at some point. I never thought about why they might not have long pants until I remembered the hundreds of knee patches Tidney ironed on my brother's pants. He had a thing about playing in the dirt and always had holes in the knees. Once they belonged to her boys, she probably just cut them off, as she could not have afforded such a luxury as a knee patch. And, of course, there would be the matter of the aforementioned iron…
They had no transportation aside from their own two legs. My parents or grandparents picked her up and dropped her off; they also drove her to the county welfare office to pick up her monthly rations. She had no need to go shopping for food or clothes. They certainly never had to go to the doctor or the dentist. Amazing how they stayed so healthy.
Was she in the ghetto? I don't even think their little plot on earth could rise up to the term.
Our other maid, Princie Mae, was probably in a similar predicament, but her home seemed like a castle by comparison - it was made of concrete blocks. That fact, however, did not keep the three room structure from burning completely to the ground when I was about eleven. With no insurance, the little family disbanded and moved in with an assortment of friends and neighbors. Like Mary Ma, Mema also made the trek out to Hiwanee to ensure Princie Mae at least had her $15 per week, even if she didn't have a home or anything else to her name.
I am quite sure that no one in either of these families had ever stayed in a motel, nor did they visit our local "picture show." There was, however, a separate entrance for black patrons, just as Dr. King referred to in his speech. I first noticed it when I saw "Viva Las Vegas" starring the other king himself, Elvis Presley. I had already paid my quarter and gone through the big white double doors to the right of the ticket booth. I was standing in line to get a pack of Milk Duds and a Coke when I glanced back over to where the ticket agent sat. Her attention was still directed towards the glass window in front of her; I watched as she made change for a dollar and slipped the coins into the little metal tray under the glass. A young black man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, stood patiently behind another glass, this one to the clerk's right but in my immediate line of view.
I was fascinated by the unexpected sight of him. Where had he come from? What was he doing? He continued to wait until every last white person had paid and entered. Eventually, bored with looking at her nails, the agent gave him a ticket in exchange for his quarter, then immediately took it back and tore it in half. He jammed the tiny little piece of cardboard in his pocket and disappeared.
It wasn't until after the movie was over that I figured the whole thing out. The young man had entered through a nondescript door to the left of the ticket booth - so nondescript, I had never even noticed it before. After paying to enter, he had gone up to a balcony that I also never knew existed. Either there were very few black patrons or they watched every movie I ever saw in reverent silence; I never heard a peep from the balcony. No pickles were thrown, no feet were stomped, no chatting or whispering or noise of any kind. So, while I never witnessed a single "For Whites Only" sign, the concept was quite alive and well in my south Mississippi of the 1960's. It was unspoken, but known. And, I didn't even know I knew it.
What else do I remember? Too much, I'm afraid. I remember segregated pools and schools. I remember campaigns and elections marked by red, white and blue and no black. I remember tops of heads, for the heads underneath them always seemed to be bowed, looking at the floor while in the presence of my father or one of my grandfathers.
So, Dr. King, you were right about it all. Here is what you wrote about my native state:
"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."
And about my second state, where I have lived since 1971:
"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of 'interposition' and 'nullification' -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
You are long gone, Dr. King. I am sorry that I am just now really reading and understanding your words. I finally "get it."
Here is what I do not get. I do not understand how a dream so clearly written and electrifyingly conveyed could become so lost and misconstrued.
I believe that the dream was for equality and compassion for all humankind. I believe that the dream was to help those segments in society which had been held down without benefit of education or acquiring rudimentary job skills. I understand that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested that the government make restitution payments, of a sort, to disadvantaged Americans today for the wages lost to slavery in the 1800's, he did so trusting that these monies would solve all manner of societal ills. In Why We Can't Wait, published in 1964, King expresses the belief that these funds were "more than amply justified by the benefits that would accrue to the nation through a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils."
As I read that, it seems to me that all Dr. King wanted was for his people to rise above the past with help from the present so as to secure a bright future. He wanted them to become self-sufficient; he wanted them to be respected, but also, to respect others. While I'm still in my seven-year-old daydream, I can remember my grandmother's mantra, as she pounded into my head the value of education: "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime."
While there have been no handouts earmarked specifically as reparation for years of enslavement, there have certainly been multitudes of government programs designed to aid those in need. Some have used these programs and made new lives for themselves and their families for generations to come. These dedicated souls are seemingly still in the minority. Many do not want to learn to fish.
I do not believe that all of the little black boys and black girls have joined hands with the little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. While the south Mississippi of my youth is gone, I do not think that what has replaced it has fulfilled a dream - not Dr. King's, certainly - nor has it provided justice for all. Public education is a mess; corruption in the justice system is rampant. Fortunately, we don't have a lot of rioting in the South, but our relief rolls are certainly still growing, as is the illegitimacy rate. Some children are never born into a family to begin with, so at least they don't have to worry about the family breakup issue.
What would Dr. King say to his people if he were alive today? What would he do?
I think he would cry, then get right back up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
What do you think?