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Hearing MLK (3rd of 3)

February 17, 2015

Just got back from seeing ”Selma.” Very accurate to my memory of my awareness at the time, so I was on the verge of tears throughout the film. I’ll recount your narrator’s experience in Montgomery on the last day of the march—how it went, in the life of a very ordinary person, who sort of sleep-walked his way through that last day. This account won’t be much like the film.

I want to say, first, that in spite of my white Northern youthfulness, there were two major emotional truths in my experience of racism in America at that time, that are still very real for me, and that we must keep in mind when we think of the march and all that it represents, including today’s police lawlessness and other domestic acts of terrorism. One is fear—that visceral awareness, spoken by Coretta King in the film, of the omnipresent potential for violence and death. The other is the calming determination at the heart of knowing what is required by our humanity, and simply cannot be refused.

Even a white kid could feel those in the air.*

When the brutality at the bridge hit the news, and the announcement of the determination to march from Selma to Montgomery, with Rev. King calling for national participation by clergy and lay people, I was about to take my doctoral prelims (American, English, and Continental lit) at Indiana U-Bloomington. Five 3-hour sessions: MWF/MW.  Pass or forget the degree.  I had taken classes for three years, while teaching freshman comp for meager wages, and I had been cramming for months.  I had a long-suffering wife, two children, and another preparing to join us.

Hearing the call, the Episcopal congregation in Bloomington managed to charter a plane to Montgomery, planning to arrive just in time to join the marchers as they entered the city; and Phyllis and I scraped together enough money for me to join the Episcopalians (and others, I’m sure).  I don’t remember whether we were an entirely white group, but quite possibly, and of course we were entirely Northern middle-class.  We were university people, intellectuals, who lived in, if not so much of, a Southern-esque small town (and recently Indiana has all but joined the Confederacy).

I took exams all morning, then checked the news from Alabama while cramming all afternoon and into the night.  The March began on Sunday; I took my last exam on W, and early the next morning got on the plane.  5,000 marchers had left Selma on Sunday, nobody knowing what lay ahead, but with reason to fear the worst as they marched through the countryside.  On Thursday afternoon our group was among the 25,000 who marched up Dexter Avenue, between the lines of paratroopers (101st Airborne), white and black, standing at parade rest, to the Capitol building, where we saw the Confederate flag still waving defiance.

Although I had grown up in an Army Air Force and then Air Force blue family, with my self-awareness bound up in B-29s and P-51s, this was my first time in a plane, off the ground (and that first feeling of lifting off the earth was glorious).  Ours was a DC3, which I knew to be a converted C-47 troop and cargo transport, another of the great American planes of WWII and the early Cold War.  It was remarkably small and light, by today’s standards.  I sat in the last seat, which became especially meaningful as we flew over a major line of storms.  For much of the flight, while going mostly toward Montgomery, we added miles by being lifted straight up, dropped straight down, and lifted way back up again.

By the time we reaching the Montgomery airport, the marchers had already entered the city.  There was no arranged ground trasportation remaining, but we got on a city bus that was sitting empty, and the driver (a white man of course) was friendly.  I had met the comedian, Dick Gregory, when he came to Bloomington for a fund raiser for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, “Snick” (he had joked about my attempt at a beard, but soon after that he grew one and still has it); and I had read his very funny satire, From the Back of the Bus, so I felt doubly honored to sit in the rear seat of that Montgomery bus.

When we came to the line of marchers we got out and joined them for the walk up the hill to the capitol building.  It was a warm, sunny day. The paratroopers lined both sides of the street between us and the white crowd.  We came to a stop near the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, with its old red bricks and black kids leaning out of windows, laughing, singing, and shouting.  When we got as close to the grandstand as we could, where the speakers had already begun, I was exhausted.  I noticed the famous labor lawyer, Joe Rauh, and his group among many sitting on blankets in the street, so I lay down on my raincoat and promptly fell asleep in the sunshine.  Luckily I woke up in time for King’s speech. When I woke, I opened my eyes and met the eyes of a black girl, 10 or 11 years old, sitting on the pavement next to me.  When I sat up, she looked at me seriously and got up and walked away. This time I couldn’t hear much of what King was saying, but that wasn’t the point.  We were there.

After King spoke, and it was late afternoon, still sunny but beginning to cool, the crowds quickly dissolved.  As it turned out, our group would board one of the last two buses.  Since the Alabama State Patrol headquarters building was catecorner from the capitol, we stood for perhaps 20 minutes in a sea of blue-helmets.  The fact is that it was scary, even though they appeared to be under strict orders, and I don’t remember any of them even looking at me (although I proudly fantasize that my photo is in their files—and it could be).

At the airport, the local white, middle-class travelers seemed friendly enough.  Then we learned that the massive storm front now blocked our flight path, so we were being flown to Birmingham for the night.  We knew Birmingham as the city of “Bull” Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs, and King’s remarkable “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; but we would be put up by wealthy white families in that steel-manufacturing city.  With several friends I arrived at my hosts’ beautiful home, thanked them, and was soon asleep.

I slept well, woke up early, eager to get home to my family, and went down to the kitchen, to see when we would be heading for the airport.  There was no one in the kitchen, but on the table was the morning newspaper, with the banner headline:  Viola Liuzzo Killed.  She was a mother of five, a white woman from Detroit who had answered the call to resist racism, and had been murdered in her car on a country road in the night, along with a black boy whom she had been assigned to take home from the march.

Well there are moments in our time when Truth clarifies itself as history, and marches on. It asks for some to die for its clarity. Others, like myself, it just offers the privilege of being there.

*I believe that these are always present in our deep awareness of life. Through the eons we have written them into our DNA. We rewrite them and rewrite them. They’re who we are, and we all know it—all.

[Hearing MLK, page 1,  page 2]

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