Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Royal Reunion

Early this morning, Coretta Scott King passed from this life into the next, entered into the heaven she had dreamed of and read about all life long, and was greeted by two Kings: first the King of Glory and then her beloved Martin Luther King, Jr. For the four children she left behind, this was a sad morning. For Mrs. King, this was the morning she'd been waiting for since the morning she heard the news of her husband's assassination.

I never knew either of them, Dr. or Mrs. King. But in so many ways, my life is what it is because of them, because of their dream of what this nation could be, and because nothing, not even death, could stop the work of righteousness that motivated Dr. King from being carried forth.

Way back in 1983, when I was a senior in high school in Brooklyn, New York, I entered and won an extemporaneous speaking contest at my school by writing, memorizing, and reciting a letter I'd written to Dr. King thanking him for the life he lived, for his dedication to his belief in equality for black and white people in this nation, and for his insistence that inequality must be battled in the northern states as well as the southern ones. When I graduated from Poly, there were fewer than twenty-five black students in a total population of 500 students. When I returned to Poly seven years later as a teacher, the percentage of students of color there had more than doubled. When I was invited to speak on the occasion of twenty-five years of coeducation nearly three years ago, there were more black girls in the student body than there were black students in total when I was a student there. At Poly Prep in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. King's oft-repeated dream had come true.

At this very moment, I am sitting at my children's homeschool desk in Charlotte, North Carolina, writing this blog. My two bi-racial children are outside walking our dog, playing with their friends in our mixed neighborhood in total safety and peace. As an African-American woman married to a white American man, I couldn't have lived in this house in this neighborhood in this city forty years ago. Truthfully, this neighborhood didn't exist forty years ago, but no neighborhood in this city would have welcomed our multi-racial family with the hospitality we have received since coming here. In fact, college students seeking to live out Dr. King's dream were smeared with mustard, ketchup, and epithets here in Charlotte four decades ago. I wonder if Dr. King thought such drastic change was possible in such a relatively short time.

Two years ago, I drove down to Atlanta with my daughter, and we visited the King Center for Peace. We walked reverently through the displays, watched short videos, and looked deep into the eyes of both the hated and the haters as they stared back at us from stark black and white photographs. We concluded our sojourn with a self-guided tour of the church that Dr. King pastored there in Atlanta. With the exception of a few tourists, the sanctuary was empty. The walls were bare, as was the floor. I wished those walls and that floor could have retold the tales, re-preached the sermons, and thereby re-instill in me the need to stay the course and continue the fight for peace, for freedom, and for equality for all people in our nation and all around the world.

Kristiana and I sat silently in a pew on the right side facing the pulpit about two-thirds of the way back. I tried to imagine the exhiliration, the fervor, the spirit of determination that surged through the crowd of sanctified soldiers gathered there on a weekly basis. Soldiers that fought for true freedom, for liberation from the dictatorship of racism, from the tyranny of Jim Crow. Soldiers that knew that the following week, some of those counted in their ranks would likely be dead or in prison. I tried to imagine the resonance, the power, the urgency in Dr. King's voice as he challenged his listeners to fight bullets with blessings, to protect themselves with prayer, and to march on till victory was won. Together they sang, they wept, and they armed themselves for another week of battles against an enemy for whom the world was broken down into two separate but never equal halves. That old hymn, "God be with you till we meet again" was more than merely words sung to a melodic tune; it was a benediction that could very well be their last.

As I always do when I think of that famous Washington monument speech, I have tears in my eyes now as I picture Dr. King describing for the world of his dream. There is so much still to be done to bring it fully to life. We are still judged more by the color of our skin than the content of our character. Nowadays, however, we have added place of residence, level of income, country of origin, native language, and sexual preference to the standards by which we judge those around us. Segregation still separates our neighborhoods, schools, clubs, and churches one from another. But there has been great progress. Because of those early freedom fighters who were willing to lay down their lives for their friends - some of whom they never met - I can live this great life that I have been blessed to have.

This morning, Mrs. King laid down her life one last time. She stopped worrying about who was being judged about what. She stopped taking her medication. She abandoned her wheelchair. Today the color of Coretta Scott King's skin, the neighborhood in which she lived, the right to vote for the candidate of her choice - today, none of those things matter to her. Today, right now in fact, she is dancing; she is singing; she is laughing; she is shouting in unison with her long-lost husband: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

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