Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thinking about Dr. King

By Nancy Jane Moore

My freshman year college roommate had a 7:30 class Thursday mornings. She also had a bad habit of waking up before her clock radio went off and heading out to the bathroom, so that I was frequently awakened by the news.

Which is how I learned, on April 5, 1968, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

I can still remember how stunned I felt. I got up -- no thought of going back to sleep -- and went up the hall to the bathroom to tell my roommate. It had all happened the night before, but we weren't news junkies back in those days.

My biology professor canceled class, leaving us a message that we should think seriously about what had happened. I recall taking the bus to Houston that afternoon -- it was the beginning of spring break -- still in a state of shock.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that someone would kill Dr. King. In fact, it is probably more amazing that he wasn't murdered earlier. But even though I knew about lynchings and the violent attacks against Civil Rights marchers and even though I had been profoundly affected by the assassination of President Kennedy some four and half years earlier, Dr. King's death caught me completely off guard.

I didn't grow up in the deep South, in the part of the country where the worst battles of the Civil Rights Movement were fought. But in my hometown outside of Houston, Jim Crow still held sway despite Supreme Court rulings: I went to segregated schools until I was a senior in high school.

Yet today we have a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. And -- as is often the case with people who are honored after their deaths -- we seem to pretend as a society that he was never a controversial figure. Every Jan. 15, radio stations will play his "I Have a Dream" speech and most of us will nod in agreement while listening to his stunning oratory.

But while bigotry might have been on its way out at the time of his death, it had by no means disappeared. Further, he had begun to speak out against the Vietnam War, which did not endear him to a president who had pushed through the Civil Rights Act. He was in Memphis, where he was shot, to help garbage workers who were on strike. Many thought he should not be trying to organize poor people; perhaps some feared that he might have some success at bringing together the poor across racial lines.

He was, in short, a thorn in the side of those in power to the end of his days. If he were still with us today, I suspect he would still be making trouble.

There were riots in 1968 after Dr. King was killed. Here in Washington, people who go back that far speak of the 1968 riots as a major changing point in the city. Many blighted neighborhoods date from that time -- most are just now being rebuilt. A lot of white people left the city.

I didn't move to Washington until 1980, and like most newcomers to a city, I have tended to assume it was always the way it seemed when I first moved to town. Riots and white flight seemed like a thing of the distant past -- even when they occurred at the time I was reeling from the shock of Dr. King's death. It's hard to keep all that in perspective.

But I think it about it now, because I live in a primarily black neighborhood that was mostly white before the 1968 riots. My next door neighbors were the first black family in the neighborhood -- they moved here in 1961. I know white people in nearby suburbs who grew up in this part of town. And, knowing the history, I know when they left.

I've lived here for 15 years. In the last couple of years, I've noticed a few more white people living in the area and Hispanic families are also moving in. Today's Washington Post speculates that Georgia Avenue (a couple of blocks away) may finally experience a long-awaited renaissance.

I know some Washingtonians worry that neighborhoods like mine will become all-white again, but I hope they won't. I hope this neighborhood and the others like it will gradually become more mixed. And even though I -- like most Americans -- would like to make a bundle off my house when it comes time to sell, I hope the neighborhood stays affordable. Ideally, children of all races and backgrounds would grow up around here, play together, go to school together, date and marry and raise more children in similar circumstances.

And while I'd also like to hope that our country will eventually live up to the ideals set out in our Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, current events lead me to believe that we will always need outspoken leaders who challenge injustice in our society the way Dr. King did.

It would be a nice legacy for him if some of the children in our neighborhood grow up to become thorns in the side of the powerful.

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