Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why this Redneck will Always Honor Dr. King

Delivered 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City
"And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."

I was 17 when he gave this speech and almost completely oblivious to the civil rights struggle. Although I had lived in the deep south when my dad was in the Army it was as remote from my suburban world as was Africa, or indeed, Washington D.C. (We used to joke in Arlington that the Potomac was the widest river in the world...) and poverty was only something my parents recalled from the thirties. I'm sure Dr. King's concern for young white suburban jerks was almost as remote, but his reaching out beyond his world caught me up and showed me for the first time the distance between what I had been taught, in school and in church, and the reality of America in the world. Vietnam chewed up a lot of my cohort and would have taken many more without Dr. King. Talk about standing athwart history and yelling "Stop!"

I am more embarrassed than ashamed of the casual racism of my youth, because I know it was out of ignorance, and I do know the difference between that and real hatred that I would come to see later. I always detested sports, but one of my first  heros was Muhammed Ali, who put into words ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Congs") that even I could grasp, what Dr. King was saying so eloquently that was lost my younger self. Later I would learn about Paul Robeson's lonely struggle against the hidden side of the world I took for granted, and Malcolm X speaking reality to black men, but really to all men who want to be truly free. Everyone owes thanks to the brave men and women of the Civil Rights Movement. Like it or not, fellow crackers,  Black History IS American History.

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