I was a child when Rev. King was killed by the FBI. I was growing up in Central California Redneckville, surrounded by followers of Bro. John Birch. Probably the KKK as well. I was aware that the men in my world hated him. But the clips of what he said that were shown on the Nightly News were hypnotic. He spoke to something in my soul.
This video talks about the particular issue he was involved in, and gives part of the speech he gave the day before his death. The core of that message is still what is wrong with this nation.
You are demanding that this city [Memphis] will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those that are not in professional jobs. Of those that are not in the so-called big jobs, but let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the Nation that is is a crime for people who live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.
Somewhere I read, of the Freedom of Assembly.
Somewhere I read, of the Freedom of Speech.
Somewhere I read, of the Freedom of Press.
Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the Freedom to protest for our Rights.
Still powerful words 45 years later. Still necessary words 45 years later. The racial issues persist, but have been largely replaced by economic class issues. And I think Rev. King foresaw that:
Beyond this, long-established cultural privileges are threatened in the next phase. We have seen in the effort to integrate schools, even in the more tolerant Northern urban centers, that many reasonably unbigoted persons assume a new posture with the introduction of unfamiliar problems into school systems where they have a personal interest. In the quest for genuinely integrated housing, the intensity of opposition from many who considered themselves free of prejudice has made it clear that this struggle will be attended by tenacious difficulties.
It is against this reality that the new period must be analyzed. Negroes have benefited from a limited change that was emotionally satisfying but materially deficient. As they move forward for fundamental alteration of their lives, a more bitter opposition grows even within groups that were hospitable to earlier superficial amelioration. Conflicts are unavoidable because a stage has been reached in which the reality of equality will require extensive adjustments in the way of life of some of the white majority.
There is no discernible will on the part of white leadership to prepare the people for changes on the new level. This is the program that is absent. No one has been told what slum elimination actually entails or what the transition from equality to opportunity really involves. One is forced to believe that the answers have not been forthcoming because there is no genuine conviction that such fundamental changes need be on any early agenda.
The slums are still there. The poor who live in them prey for drug dealers and armed gangs of young men. The violence is as bad as any during the reign of the KKK in the deep South, who by the way have NOT gone away. The racism is more subtle, but still omni-present. Chicago has the strictest gun control laws in the nation, and the highest violent crime rate. Detroit is so bad that the police have distributed flyers saying “Enter at your own risk.”
We have a half black President. Not one of our own ghetto boys, mind you, but the son of rich white woman and a Kenyan. And he was just re-elected to his second term. I personally haven’t seen any real difference between how he and his predecessor have handled things. Lip service to equal rights, but no significant real changes. But people in my local community cannot say his name without cursing. Racism is still alive.
But there are signs of hope:
“You were always nervous because the KKK was out to destroy us, and they didn’t hide that,” said Samuel Williamson, another black Annistonian who was a little boy in 1961.
Williamson said race relations have improved today, but there are still deep divides.
“It’s not good but it’s getting better,” he said. There’s still a Klan presence here, he said, “you just don’t know who is who anymore.”
He lives on West 15th Street, about 10 blocks from the site of the bus bombing. The black community in Anniston is centered across the railroad tracks, in west Anniston. Like so many other once segregated black communities, there once were black-owned businesses and blacks owned homes up and down 15th Street. It even counts David Satcher, the first black man to serve as Surgeon General of the United States, as a native son.
Today 15th Street is a crumbling shell of iron and brick, like the rest of Anniston.
. . . . Richard Couch, an attorney and son of one of the men who attacked the Freedom Riders was there, and said that he is forever tainted by the sins of his father. “It’s a stain against my name that I don’t want on my name anymore,” Couch said, tears slowly streaming from his eyes. “I would rather my name carry the legacy of someone who reaches out in love and peace than something that happened fifty years ago.” Couch was born three years after the bus bombing. But he grew up hearing about it. “It was always a point of shame in our family,” he said. Couch’s father, Jerome Couch, was a mean-hearted man with a blue pick-up truck who joined in the beating and chase of the riders.
Couch’s mother and father divorced when he was a young man. And he ended up being raised by his more tolerant and progressive maternal grandfather. He hasn’t talked to his father in more than a decade.
A few seats away from Couch at the reception the other night was Hank Thomas, a Freedom Rider who was on the Greyhound bus when it was torched.
Thomas spoke of reconciliation and offered his forgiveness to those that nearly killed him half a century earlier. And in a moment unthinkable just years earlier, Couch, the son of a racist and Thomas, the Civil Rights activist, embraced in a teary hug.
If they can forgive each other and move on together, then there may be hope for the rest of us.