Even as a child, MLK day was “Not a day off, but a day on.”
As a little girl, this meant watching the documentary Eyes on the Prize, and listening to King’s speeches. Some years it meant volunteering at soup kitchens. In other years, participating in a parade or march, planning/participating in a demonstration, or crafting lesson plans for my students, or engaging in further study of King, the SCLC, SNCC, and the many efforts collectively known as “The Civil Rights Movement”.
My most memorable MLK day, to date, was when I lived in Mississippi. I was on the float with Occupy Jackson. As one of two Black members, I was selected to read Dr. King’s most famous speech over a bullhorn, taking turns with the other Black member. I fancied myself channeling his spirit. His words in my voice garnered cheers, applause, and “Amens”. The other Black member jokingly referred to me as “Isis Luther King”.
Of course, the Woke community and Leftists alike chide those who bring up the “Dream”. And of course, the myopic focus on this particular speech, particularly those parts referring to racial integration, works to obscure any holistic sense of King’s legacy–his opposition to the war in Vietnam, his Poor People’s Campaign–the things that got him killed.
Today I had planned MLK day as “a day on.” I had planned to help with clean up efforts at the church I every so often attend, but social anxiety got the best of me, so I didn’t go. I’m not a teacher any more (not right now, at least), so there were no lessons to plan. I turned on NPR with no objective, and happened upon an interview with Melba Patillo Beals, one of The Little Rock Nine.
I had heard much of her story before: the threats, the intimidation. the ire, the spitting. the black folk who lost their jobs as punishment for not collectively minding their places at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Mama Melba discussed why she wanted to go to Little Rock Central. Not because of a superficial envy of white life, but because it was a good school. One of the best in the state of Arkansas, whose alumni went on to be successful at the top universities in the nation.
She talked about being a marked woman. How first, she was a target of white rage and later, a target of Black impotence. As the whites in Little Rock withheld much needed Christmas “bonuses” from their Black employees, fired them from their jobs, and ultimately shut down all schools (including Black schools), anger was directed to those Black kids who’d provoked these retaliations, for being brave enough to desire more. What shocked me was Mama Melba’s final straw. She mentioned that she’d always had family members who’d passed for white. One of these white passing relatives was a Klan member, and contacted the family explaining there was a “Wanted” poster with her name on it and a $10,000 reward, Dead or Alive.
Forgive me for centering whiteness, but I was stuck. I couldn’t help thinking about this white-passing KKK member, wondering if his membership was by choice or for survival, and what he risked in trying to save a family member. I wondered if there were more cases of white-passing members of the Klan or White Citizen’s Councils, passing along needed intel to Black family members.
Much more ground was covered in the interview, and I cried through a lot of it.
I cried last night, listening to an interview with Isabel Wilkerson, journalist and author of The Warmth of Other Sons–a book I absolutely cherish, about The Great Migration.
I thought about the statistics of a black person being lynched every 4 days during the 1900s, and a black person killed by police every 2-3 days now.
Today I read that Dr. King suffered from depression. Not just after he realized that he was going to be killed for his work, but long before that. As a boy. That he’d jumped out of a two story window, in an attempt to take his own life. I imagined that perhaps, like me, he spent a lot of time crying.
I was heartened by that. Because today–like many days–I felt that perhaps this was a good time to die. Because I am depressed. Semi-functional, I suppose. But not enough to see how I’ll get to the other side, or climb up out of this pit.
But I’m heartened because a man that I admire and respect, was depressed, and followed his heart anyway, listened to himself anyway, and despite his imperfections, did good things and contributed to amazing things. And if a depressed person can become “Dr. King”, surely I can at least survive.