I’ve known Dr. Johnny Wink for a long time. He’s a professor of English at Ouachita Baptist University, where my dad teaches and where Misty and I went to school. He’s one of those who uses language in such a way that, when I’m done reading what he wrote, my thoughts are rearranged for the better. Yesterday I had the great fortune to read a transcript of his remarks to the OBU faculty about Martin Luther King, Jr. I begged him for permission to reprint them here, and he kindly agreed.
I suppose I should tuck this away for next year and run it on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Somehow, though, that feels wrong. Wrestling with racism and with the legacy of slavery in this country shouldn’t be confined to one day. Johnny’s words deserve to be read by others. There is no bad time, only now.
Ladies and gentlemen, I yield the floor to Dr. Wink.
Today is the 37th birthday of Susan’s and my son Gene. I’ll come back to that fact at the end of these remarks.
I sometimes think my first remission began on a day when I got on a Gulfport, Mississippi, city bus and rode from somewhere to somewhere. I’ve tried to recall the date with some precision, but I cannot. I must’ve been fourteen or fifteen, so I think this event occurred in the very late 1950’s. It may have occurred a little later.
The buses that took us around the city had in their fronts two benches of seats that faced the aisle. There was room in these seats for four or five people per bench. The rest of the seats faced the front of the bus. In the back of the bus of course sat black folks.
However, there was an exception to the unwritten rule that day.
A young woman, black and beautiful, two or three years my senior, I suspect, sat across from me. There was no fanfare about her sitting there. She sat where she sat without apology. There were no more than a dozen or so folks on the bus. I was confused. I was embarrassed. For whom was I embarrassed? For the young black woman, I think. She was doing something that was making the white folk on the bus dislike her, although nobody said anything to her.
I didn’t dislike her, but I didn’t think she should be doing what she was doing. She was creating tension. She was showing that she didn’t know her place. In her own quiet way she was being uppity. And in a myriad ways the voice of my Mississippi education had said to me that Negroes ought not to be uppity. Doing so upset a balance–a necessary balance.
And then a white girl got on the bus, a girl who was maybe ten years old. She dropped her nickel into the slot and started to sit down next to the black woman, oblivious for a fraction of second to her incipient seatmate.
But she didn’t stay oblivious for long. Before her small butt hit the seat, she saw what she was about to do. And her response was reflexive. As if she’d touched a hot stove or seen a cockroach, she came to standing attention and walked quickly away, to a more segregated seat.
And that’s when I think it began for me, my first remission from what Francois Mauriac has called one of the most voracious idols at which ever the human race has worshipped, the idol called racism.
For at that moment I was ashamed. I was ashamed of myself for having thought a moment before that this citizen of the United States of America seated across from me didn’t have the right to sit where she durn well pleased on a vehicle that was part of the public transportation system of Gulfport, Mississippi. I was ashamed of the system which had inculcated in me such an attitude as had been mine before my remission began and which had helped foster in the little white girl her reflex.
I was ashamed of being ashamed. I wanted that young woman across the aisle to know that I wasn’t like all the rest–but I was–I had been a minute before and I would be, on and off, later in my life, depending on how the remission from that long and cruel disease has gone.
And she knew it. Her beautiful eyes offered me no pardon.
Later I married Barbara Lambert of Clinton, Mississippi. Her older sister, Brenda, had been fired by a department store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for trying to register black voters. Barbara and Brenda and Brenda’s husband Doug liberalized me. I know the word liberal has been in bad odor for the last decade or so, but, believe me when I say that back there in the Jurassic Age, in Mississippi, if you were going to go around thinking that black citizens ought to have the right to vote, you were going to be labeled a Liberal and you were going to think of yourself as a Liberal . And so I continue to wear this verbal badge with not quite as much shame as Newt Gingrich or Sean Hannity think I ought to wear it.
And then Martin Luther King, Jr., entered my life. Let me try to give you at least some small idea of just how unpopular Dr. King was on many fronts back when he was not safely dead. Bob and Dot Lambert, my first set of in-laws, were having a couple over from the that very same first Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi, in which Barbara and I had been married a year before. Barbara had vowed to make her wedding appearance in the church her last, for there was at the time no Civil Rights auxiliary wing of the First Baptist Church of Clinton, Mississippi. Nobody there bore the sort of witness that Barbara needed at the time.
I do not recall the name of the couple. Let us call them the Joneses. Brenda and Doug and Barbara and I were in town. Since Brenda was trying to register black voters in Hattiesburg and protesting the Vietnam War and doing all sorts of other communistic stuff, Bob and Dot were a bit antsy about the course the conversation might take when they entertained their guests.
I’ll never forget what Brenda said. “Look, all we’ve got to do is turn the conversation to Martin Luther King. I don’t like him and neither do the Joneses. We can at least agree on that.”
Brenda didn’t like Martin Luther King because she liked H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael and other folk of the Burn, Baby, Burn persuasion. The Joneses didn’t like Martin Luther King because, although he was saying precisely the same things the Joneses were hearing in the First Baptist Church of Clinton, Mississippi, every Sunday, he was, shall we say, applying those things a bit differently from the way the Joneses were applying them. A disciple of the Prince of Peace, Martin Luther King, like his Lord, came not to bring peace, but a sword, the sword of agitation, the sword of controversy, the sword of the surgeon who makes a wound to cure the cancer.
Brenda didn’t like Martin Luther King, but I did. He became my mentor. He bore witness to the very best earthly possibilities of my faith. More than any other single person, MLK taught me how to read the Bible as the living word of a living God. I watched as he took it upon himself to try to redeem the time. And what a very hard time it was to try to redeem.
How very hard it must have been to be Martin Luther King. How deep his faith must have been to have borne what he bore. Leave alone for a minute the constant threat, the constant menace of violent people, the unwritten fatwa that shadowed him as surely as did the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against a writer who dared to think about religion in a way the Ayatollah didn’t. I fear I should have been reduced to a puddle of neurotic jelly by such a threat. Dr. King was obviously made of sterner stuff than I. But leave that alone.
Think with me for a minute about being disliked by so many people solely because you’re trying to do the right thing. I sometimes wonder whether King didn’t occasionally find himself muttering with Hamlet: “The time is out of joint: O, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” If he did, he kept such mutterings to himself, and marched on, and, in the process, educated and ministered to poor, confused Johnny Wink and God knows how many other souls in need of such a ministry.
Brenda didn’t like Martin Luther King. J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like Martin Luther King. The Joneses didn’t like Martin Luther King. My dear father didn’t like Martin Luther King. I knew good people who didn’t like Martin Luther King. I knew bad people who didn’t like Martin Luther King. I knew all sorts of people who didn’t like Martin Luther King.
I knew people who reveled in calling Martin Luther King Martin Luther Coon. There was supposed to be a joke somewhere there. It depended partly on alliteration. King and Coon are both single syllable words that start with the same sound.
It depended on the age-old ploy of racism whereby the race being demeaned is dehumanized by means of animal imagery. The next time you watch The Hotel Rwanda, count the number of times the word cockroaches is used.
It was a pitiful attempt at a joke, but, alas, it got laughs. And I guess there is, after all, something funny–in the pathetic vein–about folks who didn’t have a morsel of this man’s dignity, courage, vision, and love of his Lord and his fellows calling him a coon. As I said a moment ago, my dear departed father, as good a man as ever I’ve known, a man who, when the chips were down, behaved decently in ever racial situation I ever saw him in, still didn’t get Martin Luther King, didn’t like him, saw him as a troublemaker, couldn’t see to see just what a prince among men this man was.
But my mom took a different tack. She always liked Martin Luther King and would take up for him on 3621 10th Street in Gulfport, Mississippi, when the conversation turned in that direction.
And a couple of days ago, when I was visiting my mom, who’s a Katrina refugee and now lives a mile from me and my wife Susan at a place called The Beverly, she reminded me of something she once said to my dad, back in the early 1970’s on the occasion of the second or third birthday of our son Gene, who, as I indicated at the beginning of a speech that is very soon coming to an end, is today doing the best he can to celebrate a birthday in the icy mess that Tulsa, Oklahoma, currently is.
Mom and Dad are at the kitchen table. It’s January 15, 1972 or 73. Dad says, “I wish Gene hadn’t been born on MLK’s birthday.”
My prescient mother says, “I’m glad he was. You just watch. One of these days Martin Luther King’s and Gene’s birthday is going to be a National Holiday.”