Sunday, January 14, 2007

Memories of Dr. King on the Eve of His Birthday

Clicking through my blogroll this morning, I noticed that Texas State Rep. Aaron Pena had an interesting link to an audio file (in two parts) of a speech given by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Temple Israel congregation in Hollywood, California on Feb. 26, 1965.

I listened to it in its entirety. I had never heard it before and noted common threads and themes to his earlier and later speeches. I was particularly drawn to his remarks in regard to a trip to India that he made with his wife, Coretta Scott King. At one meeting he attended there, he was introduced as a “fellow Untouchable”. He said he at first took offense to the label, then thought about it and decided that, indeed, the shoe fit.

Here are his words:

“I remember some time ago, Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India and we had some marvelous experiences. They will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen.”
“I remember one afternoon that we journeyed down to the southernmost part of India in the state of Kerala. And I was to address that afternoon, some high school students who were the children mainly of parents who had been Untouchables. And I remember that afternoon that the principal went through his introduction, and when he came to the end he said ‘I am happy to present to you students a fellow Untouchable from the United States of America’”.
"And for the moment I was peeved and shocked that he would introduce me as an Untouchable. But pretty soon my mind leaped the Atlantic. And I started thinking about conditions back home."
“And I started thinking about the fact that I could not go into most places of public accommodation all across the South. I started thinking about the fact that twenty million of my black brothers and sisters were still at the bottom of the economic ladder. I started thinking about the fact [that] Negroes all over America, even if they have the money, cannot buy homes and rent homes of their choices because so many of their white brothers don’t want to live near them.”
“I started thinking about the fact that my little children were still judged in terms of the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And I said to myself I AM an Untouchable, and every Negro in the United States is an Untouchable. And segregation is evil because it stigmatizes the segregated as an Untouchable in a caste system. We’ve been in the mountain of segregation long enough. And it is time for all men of good will to say now, we’re through with segregation now, henceforth, and forever more.”
The man could turn a phrase.

My personal recollections of Dr. King were those of a young boy growing up in suburban Southern California. There were no black kids in my school. I lived in one of those neighborhoods that Dr. King described. Indeed, a ballot proposition was passed in the early 60’s in California, called the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which was an attempt to “to help end racial discrimination by property owners and landlords who refused to rent or sell their property to ‘colored’ customers.” Three years later it was overturned by the California State Supreme Court. I recall the righteous indignation over that ballot initiative on the part of my parents who, were by that time, landlords, and their relief when it was overturned.

Yeah, you thought that Californians were all a bunch of lefty nutcases, didn’t you?

I also recall the backyard celebration that was held by my father and his brother the day that Dr. King was assassinated. I never did understand their delight at the death of a minister who was, to my young mind, a sincere man.

In all fairness, my father, who still lives and breathes, has since made a complete 180 and is now rabidly liberal. It’s actually no fun talking to him anymore because we agree on everything. For the record, I won the last argument I had with him, and my dad stopped voting a straight Green ticket and votes Democratic again.

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