Martin Luther King, 1963, and Me
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his impassioned “I Have a Dream Speech” to over 250,000 civil rights supporters at the Lincoln Memorial, site of the culmination of the historic March on Washington. Two weeks earlier, on August 16, a young girl played in the first integrated tennis match on the public courts of Byrd Park in Richmond, VA. I did not comprehend the meaning or the magnitude of either event at the time. But I do now.
Usually seeded first in tennis matches in my hometown, I was the second seed this time. The number one seed was coming to play for the first time from North Carolina. I had never heard her name. As my mother and I approached the courts, parked cars appeared from many long blocks away. “Are these people coming to the match?” I asked. “Yes, Sweetie, they are.” What’s going on? I wondered. When I got to the court, the stands were packed with over 300 people. My father had taken the afternoon off, as he often did to see me play, and hugged me before he took his seat. I looked at the crowd. One half of the stands—all black; the other half, all white. Those sitting on blankets and in lawn chairs were similarly separated. My opponent was Bonnie Logan, very nice and very shy. She won, 6-4, 7-5 and continued on a career that took her to world championship play. After we shook hands at the net and turned to walk together towards the stands, I’ll never forget this sight: my father reached across the divide to shake hands. The color line dissolved! People left blankets and chairs to introduce themselves to no-longer-strangers. The whole scene looked and sounded incredibly joyful, even if its significance was lost on me. Interestingly, I discovered recently in re-reading the newspaper coverage of the match, there was no mention of the one thing that made that day part of Richmond’s history—what should have been a long overdue proud part. (Eventual world champion Arthur Ashe was denied the right to play on these same courts.) Size of the crowd and length of the longest rallies were newsworthy, but not the reality of all that made Bonnie Logan the bravest girl in town. Things in Richmond went back to “normal” in 1963.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin,” Dr. King intoned two weeks later in words that rang then and ring still worldwide. In his powerful “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” penned in April of 1963, King wrote to fellow clergymen who thought he should tone down his activism: “Injustice must be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” Also in this letter he called out Birmingham on its appalling record of police brutality and its “notorious record” of injustice towards blacks in the courts. Dr. King is honored today and hailed by many as a prophet. Hear his prophetic voice in these few, short quotes. What he dreamed for his own children speaks to the death of Tamir Rice and the treatment of his sister by the Cleveland Police Department. He envisioned the chokehold death of Eric Garner as he breathlessly squeezed out the words “I can’t breathe,” as well as to the response of the Grand Jury to the video of Garner’s death. Dr. King died before he could initiate his “Poor People’s Campaign,” demanding that this country, the country he loved, look economic inequality squarely in its ugly eye. This growing, glaring inequity lies in deadly fashion at the heart of injustice. Indeed, it guarantees injustice. He planned to expose it then, knowing all-too-well the tension and resentment this spotlight would create. Fix it now, Dr. King demanded. Now?
Oh, how Dr. King would have mourned the December 2014 murders of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. His creed was non-violence and love. The most economically strapped communities desperately need police protection. Again from the Birmingham Jail he wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” We must learn this lesson by heart, in our hearts. And act on it.
Standing in a hotel lobby in Barcelona in 2005, I heard a recording of a familiar voice. The clerk turned to us from behind his desk, tears in his eyes, and said softly, “It is so beautiful, yes?” We honor the booming voice of Martin Luther King today as it challenges us anew: “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” Liberty and justice for all.