Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

August 28, 2011

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today marks the anniversary of Dr. King's I Have A Dream speech that he delivered 48 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. The dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. was scheduled for today, but was postponed until September or October because of Hurricane Irene.

I hope that the dedication is rescheduled on a day that I will be in Washington, DC with United Workers Movement President Rabby Syed so that we can attend. Regardless, I am excited about stopping by the monument next time I visit.

The sculpture reflects a phrase from Dr. King's speech: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” It was sculpted by Chinese artist Lei Yixin who made the words come to life as a 30 foot tall stone sculpture of the civil rights hero emerges from two sides of a mountain passageway.

The monument stands on four acres among monuments to other great Americans on the National Mall– George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of my earliest heroes and he had a profound impact on my life. Every day after dinner I sat with my parents and watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news. Images from those evenings are imprinted on my mind like a slide show from the 1960s. Scenes from the horror of the Vietnam War; marches and riots sprung from the civil rights movement; boycotts of lettuce and grapes led by César Chávez; the insanity of the nuclear arms race; stinging words from politicians like Alabama Governor George Wallace; hopeful words from righteous heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the senseless assassinations of great American leaders.

By the time I was in high school, I was no longer watching the scenes from the television, but was living them as I demonstrated for civil rights, equality and peace and protested the Vietnam War. A youth minister at my church advised me to channel my outrage with injustices and world events by helping others. He asked my parents for permission to take me to the Salvation Army in the North End of Hartford to tutor inner-city students. I went with him every week for over a year.

After my sister and friends learned to drive I recruited them to go there with me. While other teens waited for the weekend, I waited for Tuesday and Thursday evenings to go to the Salvation Army. It was the highlight of my week. I helped a group of junior high school boys with their English homework. They taught me about their lives, which was a world away from my own. I brought the boys cookies that I baked, used books and school supplies. They gave me gifts of poems that they wrote or drawings that they created.

One student, Cecil, was an artist, actually a very talented artist. He sketched a hand that was perfectly drawn. He signed it and presented it to me as a gift. I would have framed it except the middle finger was extended and my parents would never have let me hang it up.

Another student invited us to meet his mother. There were bottles of sour milk outside the door on the fire escape where we entered. They lived in a tiny apartment with a couple of dirty, sheet-less mattresses on the worn vinyl floor, scurrying cockroaches and unadorned walls with peeling paint. Such a contrast for pampered teenage girls to witness – girls who wore the trendiest fashions and lived in beautiful houses in the affluent suburbs.

The last night that I was ever at the Salvation Army was April 4, 1968. That night changed the direction of my life. The director came to the table where I was sitting with my students. I knew by his pained facial expression that someone was terribly wrong. He said that we had to leave immediately. Dr. King had been shot and riots had broken out in the city.

I felt a sense of urgency to leave and at the same time a desire to stay with the students, as we were rushed to the car. The choice was not mine to make.

Our escape went well until we reached the first stop light. There a group of angry young men came out of the shadows to pound our tiny turquoise Volkswagen beetle that was decorated with peace signs and flower stickers. They rocked the car back and forth in an apparent attempt to overturn it with us inside. One enraged teenager threw an object that slammed into our back window. The red light was ignored, the accelerator was hit and the city was quickly behind us as a blurred memory of screaming voices, pounding fists, shattering glass and black smoke from the fires set by the angry rioters.

My parents never let me return to the Salvation Army, despite my tearful pleas. I agonized for months over the fact that I never had the chance to say goodbye to my students or to thank the director who told me that I would make a great teacher someday. My parents could keep me out of the North End of Hartford, but they could not stop me from traveling a path to fight for change and social justice. The death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually the birth of my social activism.

Many years and many protests later in 1983 I boarded a bus with some religious leaders and friends to attend the 20 anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the "We Still Have A Dream March for Jobs, Peace and Freedom March on Washington." On the long bus drive, we discussed the ways that Dr. King's dream had not been fulfilled.
dc march 1983 copy-1
1983 March on Washington. (I am on the right in the shorts and hat holding the banner.)

gayle king dc march 1963 copy
Gayle King (Oprah's friend) former WFSB anchor from Hartford, CT interviewing marchers from CT 1983
It is sad that almost 50 years after the March on Washington and Dr. King's moving speech, his dream still has not been realized for many who live and work in the United States. Discrimination continues and now immigrants and foreign workers are among the targets. Poverty is increasing among minorities, and the middle class is disappearing as the divide between the haves and have nots expands. Terrible legislation like the anti-immigrant laws enacted in Arizona, Alabama and the CNMI, that mirror the unjust and discriminatory Black Codes of the post-Civil War era, mock our constitution and the principles upon which our country was founded.  Instead of advancing our country forward these un-American laws take us backwards towards Jim Crow laws and times that shamed our nation –times that leaders of moral conscience like Dr. Martin Luther King worked to end.

My dream is that someday I can take my grandchildren to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and they'll ask me about a time in the past when racism, poverty, war and injustice were the main ingredients of our society.

It is wonderful that our nation is honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with an inspirational monument. We can honor him every day by putting his words into action. Words like these:
The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
A right delayed is a right denied.
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.
Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten....America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness--justice.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
A riot is the language of the unheard.
Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.


Anonymous said...

Dr. King would roll in his grave if he saw the state of the USA and world today. The dream is still a dream.

TAGLISH said...

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people."

So obvious here on CNMI!

Thank you very much, Ms. Wendy for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I love your story and the article about MLK. Thank you!