Back in the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting the Island, my Aunt Dorothy came banging on my door. Dr. King was staying on New York Avenue. opposite DeBettencourt’s garage. She had arranged to have my son baptized by Dr. King.
I refused. We were not Baptists. We had a very nice religion, which we liked very much. Secretly, I was thinking, “What’s so hot about M.L.K.? He is pretty much middle-of-the-road, he’s not like Malcolm X, he is just another bombastic Southern preacher, the kind that Richie Pryor made fun of. He gets the people worked up emotionally, and then wimps out by sticking with the establishment; plus, the man has a deep Southern accent — how smart could he be?”
Before you start clucking your teeth and telling me how stupid I am, think back a bit.
Dr. King totally supported President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society. Johnson escalated this huge war in Vietnam, and King didn’t say diddly-squat about it. Young black men were being drafted for a war which was basically about “American interests.” “American interests” turned out to be American corporate interests, which totally excluded the young men who were giving up their lives.
Then, in 1967, King gave a speech about the war and American involvement in it. He questioned why we were involved. He gave that speech condemning the war at Riverside Church in New York City. If I had not been there, I would never have known about it. The press barely covered it.
The Johnson administration dropped him like a hot potato after that. King talked about U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia as imperialism. He was among the first of mainstream activists to say that the Vietnam War acted as a shield behind which the United States government could hide when it took away funding from inner-city programs that had been created specifically to aid poor urban people, especially poor African Americans.
“The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home …” he said. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
In my heart of hearts, I believe that is when “the hit” was put out on him. He never wavered from his antiwar position. He supported peace movements until the day they shot him on April 4, 1968, which was exactly one year after he gave that speech.
He became a man of principles right before my eyes. It would have been so easy to stick with the mainstream and mouth off about racial injustice, while having lunch with Lady Bird Johnson in Edgartown. When he stuck it to the corporations that controlled the government at that time, he knew the end would be coming soon.
Are there any principles you believe in so much that you would risk your life for them?
I know that I was wrong for marginalizing Dr. King because of his Southern accent and bravado in speech. I also know that I was right when I fell in love with him for being so brave as to turn against the hand that fed him.
During the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, there were so many injustices that we called ourselves the assassination generation. There were riots, demonstrations, and wars that made us so angry we felt as if we could not sit still. Regular everyday people were so angry about social injustices that we would put ourselves in grave danger just to make a moral point. It wasn’t a matter of making a choice; one simply saw only one side. It was like wading in the water at the Inkwell; before you knew it, you were so far out that you were swimming. We swam as far as our ethical DNA would go. When we turned around to look at the shore, it was beyond our grasp. We swam so far out that if you were a student of principles at Kent State University, you could get shot by your own Army.
So let me ask you again: What principle do you hold so dear to your heart that you feel it is worth dying for?
Would you smuggle slaves from the South, despite the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850? Would you hide Jews in your basement, knowing that your life was at stake? Just how much does the right to vote mean to you? Is it worth it to risk your life for a labor union?
Martin Luther King Jr. was no fool. He could tell from the daily death threats that his life was always in danger. He knew that J. Edgar Hoover was doing his best to entrap him. He loved his family — nobody wants to die — yet he remained true to his core principles, the principles that would cost him his life. The principles that make our lives easier today. Would you do the same?
Today our demonstrations are fairly peaceful; protestors allow themselves to be searched and put into designated corrals during demonstrations. They demonstrate against political parties, against disenfranchisement, and even for animal rights. A year ago, we women went to Washington right after the election and protested our hearts out, all very peacefully. It didn’t bring about much change, but they didn’t bring out the tear gas either.
Many of us gripe, but as long as we have our plasma televisions, a job with a pension, and a car, we’re lulled into a sense of thinking that things are getting better.
Is America getting better?
Are our causes dwindling?
Things seem to be shifting. Obama was elected, the Williams sisters won every title known to man; we had a poignant sense of hope.
And we were proud of ourselves. We got rid of the draft, we burned our bras, legal segregation was now illegal. We had been young and reckless; we had no regrets.
Walmart allowed us to “chillax”; now we could afford our dreams.
Many of us participated in the civil rights movement either passively or aggressively. The list of all the legendary heroes of the movement goes on and on. Then we sat down and took a nap. Did we really think the dot.com people were going to take up the torch?
While we were napping, the alt right was using our format of demonstrations for their racist purposes, citing diversity as white genocide.
Isis grows exponentially daily. What is it that they find so moving as to risk their lives? According to “60 Minutes,” America has twice as many white terrorists as Islamic; what do they find so moving as to risk their lives?
The alt right offers military training to lonely maladjusted young men in the woods of Midwestern states. When they complete their training, they don’t form gangs, they get jobs as policemen and state troopers. Could that be a reason why unarmed, innocent, black men are disproportionately murdered by the police? Seventy-four percent of extremist-related crimes are carried out by the right wing. The silent majority seems to be finding its voice; a voice for polarization and blatant racism.
And then came Charlottesville.
Charlottesville woke us up. It shook the complacency off of us and made us realize that the struggle was far from over. We still have something to fight for.
When Heather Hyer went to Charlottesville, she did not go to give up her life but she did. Will you?
We must participate. America may be getting better, but we still have a long way to go. We can’t afford to get soft.
Dr. King paved the way. He stuck with his principles knowing that his life was in danger. Don’t let his sacrifice be for naught. Do something that will make America even greater.
M.L.K. Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Heather Hyer: They will be watching us; make them proud.
Once again, my Aunt Dorothy was right. I should have let Dr. King baptize my son even if we were not Baptists. It was more about spirituality than it was about religion.
Was I wrong? Ask my son. He was 2 years old at the time, and hasn’t spoken to me since.
Abigail McGrath is the founder of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers of poetry and social issues (which is currently looking for a new home on the Island). She created Renaissance House in memory of her mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and her aunt, Dorothy West, the novelist, both “Island” girls.