When I was a teenager, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was a somber affair. My parents and I would usually attend a church or NAACP breakfast and as the speakers talked about the life of the slain Civil Rights leader, shot and killed when he was only 39 years-old, I’d try to make sense of it all.
MLK was as tragic a symbol as Jesus, so good that he wouldn’t fight back when the southern police turned fire hoses or attack dogs on him or his legion of peaceful protestors. I felt supremely guilty that because of his death and the Civil Rights Movement, I enjoyed rights, as basic as they were, that my parents had not. I got an equal education with my white peers. My parents went to “colored” schools notoriously underfunded. I took whatever seat on the bus that I wanted within reason (in an ironic twist, older kids reigned over the coveted back of the bus, out of the watchful eye of our driver). My father however never sat where he wanted on public transportation until he joined the Air Force at 17 and boarded a train headed for basic training. Even then, he didn’t get to choose his seat until he crossed the Mason Dixon line. I dated boys of every race and religion and eventually married a white man. When my parents married in the early 50s, interracial marriages were still illegal in 16 states.
Although my parents weren’t an interracial couple, my great great grandparents, Col. W.R. Stuart and Temple Burton were. At the time that their first child was born, slavery was just ending and since my great great grandmother was the colonel’s slave, he had a right to do with her whatever he wanted, including impregnate her. And he did, seven times apparently. Of course I can’t know if they loved each other, but I can’t help but think that love of something, maybe the colonel, undoubtedly the children she had with him, kept Temple going. She lived to be 104.
MLK understood the awesome and radical power of love and he threw it at every violent act or derisive word against him. The love he spread, and not his tragic death, is what I thought about today as my family and I did service in our community in honor of MLK’s birthday. As polyanna as it may sound, love really can change the world. Even though he’s gone, the love that MLK spread endures. My family is living proof.
Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.