Thoughts on MLK, Jr. Day, 2019

March on Washington

August, 1963

I was there, gray, summer weight suit, oxford button down, rep tie, cordovan wingtips, marching in the wet heat of August. Actually, it was more of a light-hearted stroll, if vigorous commitment can be labelled light-hearted which, on that day, that march, it certainly was: light-hearted, vigorous commitment. “We shall overcome”, and we believed it. I wanted to look “respectable”, and, although I was a student at Morgan State College, an historical Black college (the single Caucasian male student matriculating at the time), I wanted to march alone, to make my statement by not being lost in the crowd. One white guy in a suit and tie and proper haircut would draw notice. Of course, there were contingents from Morgan. Chartered buses came from Baltimore. It’s lost in the fog, I’m not quite sure, but I think I took a Greyhound from Baltimore to D.C. I must have or else how did I get there? Hitched? No, it was the bus. I just wanted to do it alone.

My family did not want me to go, but, of course, I had to. There was no way I could ever return to campus if I hadn’t, plus the fact that I certainly and truly wanted to be there, and would be, and was. My family believed I’d be at work that day and that was that. Only I wasn’t. I “marched”, worked my way as close to the speaker’s podium as possible, and heard that extraordinary speech by that extraordinary man.

“I have a dream!”

“Tell it, Martin,” urged Marian Anderson seated right behind him.

There I was. There. Right there. A witness to brilliance and courage and history.

Was it transformative? Did it change me? Not my mind but my resolve, yes, deepened it, but, remember, I was still a student at Morgan. That entire experience was transformative; the March a large piece of that transformation, only a transformation that took place over years at a too tectonic rate but at great depth. It has woven its way throughout the fabric of my life. Meaning what?

I’ve never been one to megaphone my views in public (in writing, yes, of course) and I’ve never awakened in the morning vowing to hew to a set of principles. One of my favorite lines comes from a play by William Saroyan. Two guys talking at a bar. One guy asks, “Would you die for your principles?” The other guy thinks then says, “No. I might be wrong.” Genius.

My principles come down to this: can I live with myself if I cross a certain red line, my own red line, of course. Nobody else’s. I’ll know when I get there. Or I won’t, and thus begins the tussle back and forth. It’s awkward as hell because I know I’m setting myself up for great tumult, but I have to do it. Like an itch inside my ribcage, I gotta get at it. Again, meaning what?

In the late 60’s I was a professor at West Virginia University, a job I loved. We didn’t always agree politically, but those students, so many kin to hard scrabble roots, were hungry for their portion of America. Scramblers who worked hard and were eager to learn more, they knew what was out there and were doing what they had to do to get it, including week-end stints at truck stops near Wheeling. I loved being a part of that experience. A two year deal. Contract to be renewed. Or not. Year One: spectacular student ratings; troublesome faculty relationship. I had just arrived in Morgantown from stage managing a premier for Edward Albee at the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto, Italy. I had my ways. I did. I admit it. I had my ways. Can you spot an accident waiting to happen? Year Two: directed a main stage production of “Guys and Dolls”, cast a Black co-ed as Sarah Brown, not because she was Black but because she had an astonishing voice and a terrific presence. Best one for the job. That’s it. So, I cast her. That simple. Except Sky Masterson, her romantic lead, would be white. Nothing explosive happened but one day, while we passed in the hall, the head of the department asked me if I’d consider casting someone else. No yelling, screaming, coercing. A simple question. A simple answer. No. It was a visceral response, calmly and politely stated. We went about amicably even the day he informed me my contract was not being renewed for as yet unspecified reasons.

The most stupid thing I ever did was to try and stop a street attack in New York City. Broadway and 73rd, 74th. Sheer folly. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. The act of a Goddamn fool. A man and woman beating and kicking another man on the ground, covering up, helpless. I did not want to go over there. I did not! But the Kitty Genovese murder went through my mind. All those people who did nothing while another human being was murdered. How could I criticize them and not do anything now? She’s hitting him with the stiletto heel of her shoe. Kitty Genovese. Hypocrite. Goddamn it! So, I crossed the street and pulled them off, and this guy who’s been getting pounded springs up off the sidewalk and tries to stab me! Tries to stab me! I blocked his arm and then the police were there. I have never again been that stupid. Never. And never will be. As far as I’m concerned, if they’re kicking your ass, they got good reason.

Still, from time to time, I find myself at that red line, and it’s a terrible feeling because I feel myself being dragged out as if by a riptide, and I have to fight the current hard, times I could say yes, times I could say no, times that put me on the fence, times when I don’t do enough, times when someone says something, and I have to say something back, not to get even or one up but to get the facts in play. I’m no hero. Not anywhere close, but when I behold people like Martin Luther King, like Rosa Parks, like Nelson Mandela, like Muhammad Ali – folks who have bravely, literally, resolutely planted their feet and said, “No more,” - folks who risked every single solitary thing – their freedom, their money, their career – yet stayed to risk even more, people like these who live their beliefs, these people are my compass. The Quakers as well. During the anti-war movements they simply stood there, silently, respectfully dressed, bearing witness. Bearing witness. Standing there. Not always easy.

I don’t plan out my principles, have never codified them, and there aren’t that many of them, anyway. They are just there taking a nap until rudely awakened and forced to their feet. To have had the experiences I had during my Morgan years, worldly, up close, ones that opened possibilities and revealed so much, friends I would never have made, air I would never have breathed? To have experienced the raw streets and struggles of Baltimore as an emergency care social worker, homes and scenes most white people never look upon? To have held children in my arms whose future is bleak and predetermined, whose bellies are distended and legs already bowed by rickets? – What kind of person would I have to be to turn my back on that? And, yet, it’s scary, it’s still scary, not every single time, but enough. My heart knows what it’s like to pump a little faster, but, fortunately, it also knows how to quiet down.

Gotta end with this. My mother called at the end of that day, August, 1963, and asked me how was work? Uh. Radar up. Fine, I said. “By the way,” she went on, “Your cousins called from San Diego. They saw you on TV. They said you were very well dressed.”