I marched with Martin Luther King in 1963, a terrified kid, but a determined one.
I lived in an area with blacks. Being poor myself, I felt an empathy for blacks and didn’t like the way they were being treated.They were nice, polite, there were no black gangs, only white gangs, no drugs, lots of winos walked around with their shopping bags because it was the days before indigent people confiscated shopping carts.
My neighborhood was mixed and people were nice to one another but the blacks lived on one side of Main Street and whites lived on the other. They didn’t seem to mingle but no one bothered anyone because of their color.
My first experience with color as an issue was when I was very young, maybe three. I walking down the street with my mother and a man walked by who was very black. I asked an innocent question, “Why is he black mommy?” I remember being curious, not because I thought he didn’t look good or attractive or normal. I was just curious why was he black and I wasn’t. The man looked uncomfortable. I’ll never forget the troubled look on the man’s face. My mother made a fuss, telling me to be quiet and never say anything like that again.
Say anything like what? What was wrong with the question? Why was the man embarrassed? She wouldn’t tell me. I thought he was embarrassed because of her reaction, maybe he was.
It left me feeling sad that I hurt this man walking down the street.
We went to Florida when I was four. We were on a ferry going somewhere in the south of Florida when I saw a cute little black kid I thought I could play with and headed for the water fountain she was drinking from. I wanted to talk to her and I did. As I took my turn at the fountain, some angry white man went up to my mother and whispered something. She ran up to me, grabbed my hand, pulled me away and told me I couldn’t drink from that fountain – didn’t I see that it said “Negro Fountain?” I had to go to the one marked, “White Fountain.” My potential playmate ran off.
I looked for the angry man in the crowd and found him scowling at me amongst several other white men who were just as angry. My mother said that we couldn’t use the negro bathrooms either. They were also marked. And so it was, that I started hating white men. I wanted to kick that man in the shins as he glared at me. Of course, I didn’t hate for long and I realized they only represented a portion of the population.
Over the years, I heard more idiotic people saying blacks weren’t as intelligent as whites, even in psych class using as “proof” a nonsensical Stanford-Binet IQ test from the ’20’s which tested blacks on things they knew nothing about and words they had never heard because of the poverty and isolation they lived in.
Why would whites think such a ridiculous thing because a person’s skin was darker? What did one thing have to do with the other? I grew up around blacks, at the time they were called colored people or negroes. They were no different from anyone else of course, some were good, some weren’t, they were just the same.
We had black children in my school because it was parochial and their parents wanted them safe, just like every other parent.Then hangings and shootings of blacks began to leak into newspapers. Now I knew they were killing people simply because of their skin color.
When I saw people like Malcolm X causing mayhem, I understood, but I thought he was another angry person I couldn’t like or respect, but then there was Martin Luther King Jr. He decided to do something different, he would change the lot of his people through peaceful protests. A Republican, a minister, and a lover of the Constitution, he used the First Amendment to bring forth his message.
Sometimes he and his followers were arrested or worse, but he continued, preaching peace and love. He really was representing God well.
So as a young kid in 1963, though frightened, I went to the local black church, hopped on the bus to D.C., was taken in hand by a kind elderly black lady, actually everyone else on the bus was black, and headed to Washington. The blacks were so excited, frightened, kind and dedicated. That was the feeling which stayed with me. We had strict instructions to do nothing to embarrass Dr. King – this was going to be a peaceful march to show who we were and what we represented.
What I didn’t like when we arrived were many of his white supporters. Some were young white communists and union people mingled with other whites, there weren’t that many, but enough.They were angry white men and women too, but with a different purpose, one that seems to have worked as I look back.
As we marched, there were some whites by the side of the road acting as if we were doing something obscene and illegal, but they just called out dumb remarks or made faces. They were insignificant.
I love the song “We Will Overcome” that we sang as we marched and I play it from time to time so I can remember the horrors of discrimination.
In his speech that day, MLK talked about the isolation and poverty they had been relegated too because they were black.
Prejudice in any form, from anyone is evil. Fight it! Fight the inclination! MLK gave up his life to change it and to do so without violence. He did not want his people to wait another hundred years for his people to live equally in their own country.
Shortly before he died, he spoke of his impending death. He was ill the night before his death and couldn’t give the sermon he planned. The next day was one of the happiest of his life.
From American Radio Works: In a speech Benjamin Hooks delivered a decade after King’s death (also featured in this anthology), he recalled King’s final sermon: “I remember that night when he finished, he stopped by quoting the words of that song that he loved so well, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ He never finished. He wheeled around and took his seat and to my surprise, when I got a little closer, I saw tears streaming down his face. Grown men were sitting there weeping openly because of the power of this man who spoke on that night.”
King had warned in previous sermons that he might die before the struggle ended. It was not the first time he told listeners he’d “seen the promised land.” King had been living with death threats for years. No one in King’s circle thought this was his final address. Later, Young wrote: “Did [King] know? He always knew some speech would be his last. Was he afraid? Not on your life!”
Young said the next day was one of King’s happiest. “Surrounded by his brother, his staff and close friends of the movement,” Young wrote, “He laughed and joked all day until it was time to go to dinner at 6 PM.” King stepped onto the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, checking the weather to decide whether to bring a coat. As he leaned over the railing, talking with Jesse Jackson and others below, King was fatally shot.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a cowardly sniper, a man whose name I won’t even mention.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by the poet Julia Ward Howe who had heard a regiment singing John Brown’s Body. She went to sleep that night at a hotel in D.C. She awoke with a spectacular dream and wrote the words for the song, called the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
This was MLK’s Favorite Hymn and in this video it is sung by Judy Collins and the Harlem Boys Choir –
The man who said...make real the promises of democracy…from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood…was murdered by an ignorant coward filled with hate.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of equality, justice, and brotherhood – brotherhood for each one of us, not division, not hatred, not wrongful deeds or drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. He wanted the struggle to meet physical force with soul force…he said the freedom of white and black are inextricably tied.
He spoke of peace.
His speech that day, I have a dream…
Today, MLK’s words have been warped by whites and blacks. If you want to know what MLK meant, listen to his speech, not to the people who think they speak for him. I grew up in NY and they were as bigoted as the south, they were just subtle and generally not violent.
MLK’s dream must come true if we are to be a free and great nation, but it can’t be unfair to whites either, it can’t be violent, it can’t be communist, it can’t be bought by politicians with agendas and MLK obviously thought the same…
Read his final words and really hear them and the heartbreak that brought them from the very depths of his soul…
…I have a dream Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so 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.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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 but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
~ Martin Luther King Jr.
And finally, We Shall Overcome –
Unfortunately, Pete Seeger is a communist.