The Dream Lives On: Reaching for Healing in Honor of Dr. King

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On April 4, 1968, I was a 5th-grade student at JR Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia. It was a school within a school -- a school for "gifted" children within a neighborhood school for (I think) mostly Hispanic kids who lived in the surrounding community. I say, "I think" because we never interacted with the kids from the neighborhood school. I only saw them occasionally, from a distance, passing through at the end of a long hallway that we never crossed.

Those of us in my part of Masterman had come from all over the city, and had earned our places in the coveted program on the basis of test scores, grades, recommendations, and in some cases (but not mine) lobbying. In my case, the teachers in my de-facto segregated elementary school worked with my parents to have my IQ tested in second grade. It would take two years to get me to Masterman, but I was there among precocious kids from all over the city who played sonatas in fourth grade and routinely won science competitions. I had no such accomplishments, but it was a place where I didn't have to be embarrassed by my inquisitiveness.

This was the 60s and I lived in what we now call the "inner city." My father was about to embark a public school teaching career, having earned his high school diploma and his BA while working full time at the Post Office. He was already starting on his Master's program. We read Shakespeare and did algebra together. On a fossil dig with his geology class, he snagged two brachiopods that I treasured like pets, even as I sat in my room and tested everything in my chemistry sets on them. We had moved from an apartment complex built by the Quakers to one built by Rev. Leon Sullivan's Zion Baptist Church.

You could walk from our apartment to where the riots had been in 1964, and the adults routinely joked about writing "Soul Brother" on our windows. You could also walk to the neighborhood so vividly rendered in Jessie Fauset's novel , Plum Bun, Opal Street. But it would be years before I would learn of Fauset and know that God could make a black girl from North Philly into a weaver of words so powerful that 75 years later, they still ring true.

My stepmother, who had been a maid, now concentrated on raising me, studying for her GED, and preparing for my little brother, who was on his way. We spent our weekends with family or visiting Levittown developments, dreaming that one day we might actually own a home.

On April 4, I was just past 11, and Joel, an amazing pianist who was already steeped in James Cleveland and Della Reese, and who could play anything by ear, asked me to be his girlfriend. I accepted, not because I was ready for such a thing, but to fit in. Besides, I liked talking to Joel about music and what was going on in the world -- still do to this day.

That evening, I was watching the Flying Nun in my parents' bedroom. Mom was in the kitchen, straightening her hair with a hot comb and talking to a friend on the phone. A bulletin interrupted and a man said Dr. King had been shot and critically wounded in Memphis. I raced into the kitchen:

"Mom!"

"What's wrong with you. Can't you see --"

"But Mom! Dr. King has been shot!"

She dropped the phone and I ran back to the bedroom in time to hear the newsman say that he was dead. I raced back to the kitchen in time to see my mom fall forward on her pregnant belly, wracked with grief. My stepmother was a tough woman, a fighter whose sharp tongue had vanquished segregation, urban gangs and racist cops and store clerks. She had fallen on the baby..

She got up and tried to compose herself when, sometime shortly after, my father came through the door, a weak smile on his face. "I got off early tonight," he said, trying to sound light.

We looked at him in horror. Mom wailed, "Don't you know what happened?"

He looked from me to her and said, "I know. I just -- I just..." His voice trailed off. As he crossed the living room to sit on the couch, his legs seemed barely able to hold him.

I do not remember any more of what was said that night. I am sure that I went to bed at the usual time. Around 1 am, I woke up, my body bathed in a cold sweat that I had never felt before or since. My pajamas and bed were soaked. I went to my parents bedroom, where their TV was still on, showing the tanks rolling into Washington DC. I don't know what I said. My stepmother got up, took me into the bathroom, bathed me and dressed me in one of her nightgowns. Then she changed my sheets and put me back to bed. It was then that I finally slept.

There was violence in Washington and around the country. This week, Cheryl Tucker quoted columnist Leonard Pitts, who recalled how Sen. Bobby Kennedy broke the news to a crowd in Indianapolis and, somehow, spoke peace to the pain:

And on the night Martin Luther King was killed, Robert Kennedy mounted the back of a flatbed truck and faced a sea of black women and men in Indianapolis. Gasoline scented the air. Some people had chains, knives and guns. Ready. Waiting.
"I’ve got some very sad news for all of you," he said, "and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee."
Shrieks rose from those who did not know. Dismay. Disbelief.
Kennedy spoke on. In this difficult hour, he said, "It is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black, considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness and with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country. ... Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with an effort to understand, compassion and love."

You can watch Sen. Kennedy here (ht IntLawGrrl):

As far as I know,none of the black students at Masterman went to school the next day. Joel and I talked on the phone. I said to him what I finally said to my parents: "This means that there are some adamant racists out there." Joel agreed. We wondered what we should do. Everyone in our neighborhood drove with their lights on that day, the way you do in funeral processions.

On Monday, we returned to school and our teacher, Mrs. Paradisi, told us the Dr. King "was asking for it." She would say something similar that June, when Sen. Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in that Los Angeles hotel. Mrs. Paradisi had managed to anger the whole class with that remark -- including the boy who said he was descended from Robert E. Lee.

After school, I tearfully told my mom what Mrs. Paradisi said. She told me that I could be proud that with all that our people had been through. we met violence with non-violence. She said that was unique in American history, and she told me about the Molly Maguires and other white ethnic gangs who fought back violently against the discrimination they experienced.

Dr. King's murder altered the course of my life. I quit Girl Scouts, telling the scout leader that I had to do something "relevant" with my talents. I started reading everything I could find that he had written or that had been written about him, starting with Lerone Bennett's What Manner of Man. I wore an MLK pendant the way others wore a crucifix, as a sign of sacred commitment. It is a commitment that I still strive to honor.

More:
Mata remembers:

I was a freshman in college at the University of Nebraska. I heard the news and went to my dorm, crying.I didn't know whart to do or where to go, but I wanted to be with other people...."

For Steve Gorelick, the face of Mrs. Coretta Scott King on the cover of Life Magazine sparked an astonishing moment of racial awareness:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.

Pam Spaulding notes the observation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that racism is "America's birth defect:"

There are ties that bind, despite a gulf of political differences — when you see this issue of race relations raised by Barack Obama and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — people of conscience should take note that we should stop playing political football with this issue and start doing the hard work to heal this, rather than engage in a downward spiral of denial and no-so-veiled vitriol (you hear that, Pat Buchanan and Bill Kristol?).

Political Buzz has videos of the speeches by Sens. Clinton, McCain and Obama. Sokari decried what America's political leaders will not say:

They will not say that the same forces who killed Martin Luther King Jr also killed Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, Thomas Sankara and thousands of others who refused to be silenced and dared to dream of another world.

Indeed, this morning, Pastor Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ likened Dr. King to the Biblical dreamer Joseph, whose death was plotted by his brothers who did not share his prophetic gifts.Moss said that just as King decried US involvement in Vietnam and neglect of pressing needs at home, so today's spiritual leaders should denounce US involvement in Iraq when so many lack health care and face economic insecurity. Moss also echoed what Coretta Scott King told her children at the time of Dr. King's death: while the Dreamer might be gone, it's too late to kill the Dream.

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