Monday, January 17, 2005

Day of the King

In the summer of 1963, before graduate school started that fall, I headed to Manhattan to live with a racially mixed group of twelve in a Columbia University frat house, rented for the summer.

Our stated goal? To study international relations. Our real goal? To party and explore Manhattan as much as one perched on the threshold of adulthood can do with barely a cent in pocket.

The requirement was to find jobs during the day to pay for our room and board. The study groups would be early evenings. Having no workable skills, a Black church in Brooklyn was kind enough to hire me half time to teach a summer class of five year olds in a tiny sweltering room, its one window frozen shut by paint, loosened only after hours of frantic scraping.

When the cook for our group threw up her hands and quit after one week, our erstwhile chaperone offered that job to me and another group member with only a half time job. We grabbed it. Cooking meant no dishwashing duties. We weren't dummies. One problem. Neither of us knew how to cook.

Sue and I found ourselves staring at a cast iron stove in the cellar, pots reaching chin height, with no clue what to do. Our group good naturedly suffered through blackened pork chops, burned mashed potatoes, and undercooked vegetables throughout the summer. Our evenings, after group study, were spent wandering the streets or sitting on the fire escape out back, searching for stars through the smog enveloping the city.

This also was the summer of the Great March on Washington, an event no-one thought would be more than a simple protest, quickly forgotten.

We didn't count on Martin Luther King.

A friend and I rode down on the church bus. When the folk singing was over, King stepped to the mike to tell us his dream. One important thing I discovered that day: Martin Luther King was not only a great orator, he was a poet, a man who knew how to hold his audience by the rhythm and repetition of his words. As he sang his poem of promise to us, a thrill swept through the crowd. We saw his dream. We believed it would come true. We laughed. We cried. Our differences disappeared.

Summer ended. Time has passed. The dream hasn't manifested yet, but I still hear his song. It plays over and again in the jukebox of my heart. I still believe what he told us. I still believe that, one day, skin color will no longer mean hatred and prejudice.

We need another poet like King to come along to song us, to pied piper us the rest of the way home.

Could that pied piper be you?


(note: I use the term, 'Black', since that was the preferred usage during that period of time)

No comments: