Homage to Dr. King

I had something I wanted to write on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and then on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I didn’t write it because I had a job I really had to get done. The job went off today, a really good, thought-provoking book about white privilege and how it skews just about every aspect of our lives, especially the justice system.

What I wanted to write about was how when Dr. King was killed, I barely knew who he was. Well, I knew who he was, but I had no clue about what he meant, and to whom, and why.

This was not because I was a little kid too young to know anything. I was two months shy of my 17th birthday, a junior in high school, a daily newspaper reader who knew a fair amount about U.S. politics and foreign affairs. My school gave students permission to leave early to attend a memorial service on Boston Common. I was amazed by the number of students who thronged the hallway getting ready to go. I thought most of them were just grabbing an excuse to cut class. If I’d been a little black kid in Alabama, I would have known better.

It was the first and (so far) last time in my life that I realized that the rest of the world knew something I didn’t. Something big. Something really big.

That summer, the summer of 1968, the church my family attended (I’d dropped out after I got confirmed in eighth grade — Christianity just didn’t take) offered a series of lecture-discussions called “Where Is Racism?” I went to all of them. As a result I started volunteering for METCO, a nonprofit endeavor that bused black city students to schools in white suburbs like the one I lived in.

METCO was based in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood that — if you lived in the white suburbs — was danger danger danger! the ghetto! the black ghetto! honkies keep out! My first day I drove there in my father’s VW Bug. With map on the passenger’s seat, I took Route 9 into Boston. I knew Route 9 like the back of my hand. My grandmother lived just off it in Brookline. One of my best friends lived off it; when I managed to borrow my dad’s car for the day, I’d pick her up and we’d head into school. I’d turn left past the lights, pass the famous hospitals, and turn in to the school parking lot.

Going to METCO, I turned right off Route 9 instead of left.

And found myself in a whole different world. This was Roxbury, the notorious Roxbury, where terrible things happened (according to the Boston papers)? So close to Route 9, and not all that far from my school?

It was several years before I heard the term “psychic map” for the first time, but when I did, this was what I thought of: Route 9 was on my psychic map, from Framingham all the way into Boston, but Roxbury, just off Route 9, was not. Roxbury was a terrifying place that I read about in the papers. It didn’t exist in my world. You couldn’t get there from here.

But you could. I’d done it. I did it quite a few times that summer. I magically passed from a street where all the people were white to one where all the people were black.

How did 1968 change my life? I can’t count the ways, because I have no idea how things would have evolved had Dr. King not been killed, and then Robert Kennedy; had Chicago not gone haywire during the Democratic Convention, had the USSR not invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, had Richard Nixon not been elected president. But the impact was profound, and lasting. Everything I know about Dr. King I learned after he died. It transformed my psychic map, and it changed my life.

 

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to Homage to Dr. King

  1. Susanna –

    Thanks for your response. Will do…I’ll certainly pass along your congrats to my friend. He has always loved his job, and his personality was a perfect match for it. Even with the level of affluence that exists there, Weston is still a great little town!

    Best regards,
    Kevin

    Like

  2. It’s always interesting to hear about the experiences of others with respect to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. And it’s fitting to pause and recognize what this selfless individual did not only for people of color, but for all human beings in the name of equality and fairness.

    A good friend of mine, a Director for the METCO program at Weston Public Schools, is scheduled to retire after having been in that position for over 30 years. And since I’ve heard, through him, the stories, challenges, and political ramifications that occurred during those times, I can definitely relate to your experiences. As a black man myself, I fully understand the extent to which those experiences have affected and shaped your life, for I have my own experiences from which to draw. Similar feelings were shared by minorities who not only lived in Roxbury, but even where I was raised in West Medford. Being caught in Charlestown or Southie back then was something we never dared to do for fear of being attacked or even killed.

    I was thirteen years old when Dr. King was assassinated, and that somber day is forever etched in mind. In fact, that entire decade, when JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy were all killed, was one of the most volatile times in American history. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Fear and apprehension permeated the daily lives of kids who were bused to South Boston to go to school where angry chants, derrogatory epithets, rocks, and bottles greeted them.

    I am happy to be able to say that diversity is increasingly becoming a positive component in most of these communities today, where people from all races and backgrounds can live in proximity to one another without having to fear for their own lives or the lives of their family members.

    I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us as we celebrate the life and contribution of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With individuals such as yourself, I believe we are even closer to achieving the dream that Dr. King envisioned, one where dignity, respect, and equality under the law was accessible to everyone, regardless of their race, creed, or color.

    Thanks again for your insightful post.

    Best regards,
    Kevin

    Like

    • Kevin! Weston was the town I grew up in. The church where I attended the “Where Is Racism?” workshop was St. Peter’s Episcopal on the Boston Post Road. The minister there was a remarkable guy, and so was his successor. Both of them were politically and socially conscious in a town where a lot of people, including a lot of Episcopalians, didn’t want to look too hard at their own privilege.
      I went from Weston to Washington, D.C. I had to be in Washington — it was one of those times when my subconscious was running my life and it was years before I began to understand the whys and wherefores. In the antiwar movement I met lots and lots of civil rights activists, and Old Lefties and New Lefties and pacifists. An ongoing crash course in everything I didn’t know when Dr. King died.
      Tell your friend congratulations and “good job” from a third-generation Westonian who left town a while ago. 🙂

      Like

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