On an unseasonably breezy August afternoon in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. ready to give the speech of his life. But first there would be songs, untamed by social order, from a dignified, 260-pound African American queen who contorted her face, jerked her body and chomped on lyrics as if a legacy of suffering flowed through her. Mahalia Jackson. Could any name better fit the physical and spiritual embodiment of Mother Church? Ma- HAIL- Yeah. There’s a song in those syllables.
“How I got over,” she began, softly. “Well, how I got over,” her voice gained strength in the repetition. “Well, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Like most gospel performances, the song grew in intensity with each verse and the crowd’s response built from murmur to “Amen!” shouts. It took several minutes for the energized crowd of 250,000 to settle down, then Dr. King stepped up to the podium. “I have a dream,” the Civil Rights leader intoned, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
It was appropriate that the Civil Rights movement adopt as its soundtrack a style of music rooted in the African American struggle against oppression. The church has long provided a sanctuary for those who wish to express their blackness in all its glory.
– from [Ghost Notes] (TCU Press), coming in March
I went to grade school in Biloxi, Miss. from 1963-65. We lived on Keesler AFB, but attended Catholic school off-base. Every morning the bus would drop off the black kids at one Catholic school and then the white kids at another. Long after Brown vs. Board of Education 1954 made school segregation illegal, Mississippi schools were not integrated. Even Catholic schools. Even next to a military base, where blacks and whites lived side by side, preparing to fight side by side for freedom.
The bus route took us through the black shantytown and the first few times I had to look away, the poverty was so grim. I didn’t want to think about it. There was no electricity, so the front porches were lit by kerosene lanterns, which gave an eerie glow in the dawn darkness. The school janitor lived on the route and told me one day that he saw us kids on the bus go by every morning. After that, I looked for Old Joe.
His shoes were falling apart, so one day my dad brought him some old Army boots and his thankfulness was so genuine, I have never forgotten the look on his face. It was like the first time I heard the blues and knew I was a certain way.
We were Kennedy liberals and my mother sent Julian Bond $10 for some campaign after seeing him on TV, which put us on the Civil Rights mailing lists for several more years. Driving through Mississippi, we saw a billboard that said “MARTIN LUTHER KING IS A COMMUNIST!” I said something like ‘is a communist worst than a Negro?” and my mother lit into me, even though that’s not what I meant.
That time in Mississippi had a profound effect on me. Afterwards, I read every book I could find about growing up black in America. James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X. Later in the ‘60s, the two groups of people I could tell you every little thing about were the starting lineup of the New York Yankees and Civil Rights leaders. I was that kid. Motown and Stax were on the radio when I was a teenager and that’s what we danced to at the youth center.
I’ve said it before: the story of African Americans, to come up from when they were treated like animals, is the greatest history of all time. I wanted to be part of it, but I could only observe and be inspired. And question what I didn’t understand.
When I left my job at the Austin American Statesman in 2011, there were a lot of reasons. A big one was that I no longer had to worry about being fired over something I wrote. I could lose assignments or freelance avenues, but those were small stakes for this newfound freedom. I decided to write more about race, which for a white male is a no-win situation.
But this is an era where race is again an issue as divisive as it was in 1963. What side are you on? That seems to be the question of the day. Are you for Trayvon or George Zimmerman? Michael Brown or Darren Wilson? The unarmed black men killed for resisting arrest or the cops who, in turns out, are just as scared shitless as the rest of us.
I’m on the side of the truth. Tell me what really happened. Don’t say a man died on his knees with his hands up, when eye witness testimony says he was fighting the police officer before being shot. That’s when you lose me. Don’t come into every issue with an agenda that twists to help your cause. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? We can handle the truth.
Whenever I post an opinion on Facebook that has a racial context, I close my laptop and walk away for at least a couple hours. I know I’ve done something unwise- opening up myself to charges and accusations and very strongly-worded disagreements. I know someone’s going to call me a racist. But Kris Kristofferson sure hit a home run when he wrote that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. I put myself in this position because it’s a rare one. I can write whatever I want with little consequences. Some would call my life pitiful, living in a studio apartment just north of campus, but since 95% of my life takes place in my head, I feel like I’m living like a king.
This is a long, long way to say Happy Birthday to Martin Luther King Jr. You were my first hero who wasn’t white or wearing a sports uniform. You knew you were going to win in the long run, so the constant evil setbacks were endurable. There’s no greater power than knowing you’re right and they’re wrong.
The first big project I took on in my semi-retirement was a book/CD on Austin-educated blind gospel pioneer Arizona Dranes. The recordings she made in 1926, which, for the first time mixed juke joint R&B styles such as ragtime and boogie woogie with religious lyrics and speaking-in-tongues fury, set the template for rock n’ roll. The designer of the book He Is My Story: the Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes (Tompkins Square) was Atlanta artist Susan Archie. She was great to work with and we were in constant communication during the design (and de-facto editing) process. She was good friends with James Bond, the brother of Julian Bond, and offered to give my mom’s hero a copy of the text. About a week later, I heard back from Susan. Former NAACP chairman Bond had a small problem with one part of the book. I had made an assumption, based on research about the male/female dynamic of slaves, that Mr. Bond said wasn’t quite accurate. “OK, change it to what he says is true,” I told Susan. Julian Bond knows more about that subject than I do, I was sure of that. I smiled for my mom, who was around for only my first 18 years.
The exchange with Julian Bond made me think of all that mail we used to get in the ‘60s, asking for contributions for various organizations dedicated to the Civil Rights movement. As far as I know, one folding dime was all we sent it. We were poor, or at least we thought we were. “What was the mail?” would come a call from the kitchen after I got back from the mailbox. “Just some Julian Bond mail,” I’d say. That’s what we called the Civil Right circulars. But I read it all. It wasn’t junk mail to me.
Those two years in Mississippi, when I would lie in bed wondering how people could treat other people that way, provided the foundation to everything I know about race in America. That’s the truth. Seen it with my own eyes. I know it’s not the same experience as being black, but a writer goes with a feeling. If he or she is true. I can’t help what I feel and I don’t want to, even if it sometimes gets me in trouble with readers. Those feelings. On some days, they’re all I’ve got. And all I need.