I was 15 years old, wasting the last bits of summer wandering with my dog alone in the forests behind my house and the prairies behind the forests, returning late for cold dinners.
“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King said as I wandered, on August 28, 1963, at the opening of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
I always got home in time for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite at 6 p.m. Walter started with the March on Washington, but my local Memphis affiliate cut out of the newscast to run a car dealership add three times in a row before shifting early to local weather!
Nothing was carried about the speech in the Jonesboro Sun which I read religiously.
It was almost a month later in the local library that I found a copy of the New York Times. When I asked Mr. Bell, the school vice-principal but more importantly, History and Civics class teacher about the speech and march, he replied curtly, “I know nothing about it.”
“Who is Martin Luther King?”
Mr. Bell hesitated then looked at me sternly, “A communist!”
King was assassinated four years later in early April. Only two years after I entered the University of Michigan I was already cutting classes to file stories for the “College Press Service” out of Washington, D.C. My assignment on April 3, 1968 was to cover the riots in Chicago that followed King’s assassination in Memphis.
It wasn’t easy. Chicago was burning. My most terrified moment was standing under the “L” at Randolph & Wells where the elevated makes its sharp turn. A fiery piece of something – wood from the railings probably – dropped with a thunderbolt on the street corner hardly 7-8 feet away from me.
It was an unusually warm night. The area was in something of a pre-drought and the city blew up like a tinderbox. People were running everywhere. There were sirens and either gun shots and/or fiery crashes. The student leader protestors I had arranged to meet under the “L” obviously weren’t coming.
That’s when I started my dream.
I had a dream that the fires would be put out. That the screaming and sirens would abate. I spent the next two years clasping to that dream in spite of my assignments to one violent protest after another.
I stood helplessly by as my photographer was mercilessly beaten by Madison cops. I got trampled in tear gas in Washington. My apartment window in Berkeley was shattered into the small kitchen by a fire hose stream trying to stop a march on the street.
But my dream grew. It grew, because the people who were being hurt and beaten were actually the gentle ones, whose dreams were much greater than mine. And you know what? The Vietnam War stopped.
My dreams took giant leaps when I was able to work under Noam Chomsky in Paris, when I covered DeGaulle’s funeral in Paris and got one of the first interviews of Sam Nujoma. My dream exploded as Kathleen and I hid Vietnam deserters in our Paris apartment on their way to Canada. I crammed so much reality into all the years of forced silence growing up in The South that every moment was overwhelmingly exhilarating.
Now, almost a half century later, my dreams are having a hard time.
We were warned of global crises like pandemics for years. Thousands of us have been warning about a Trump Reckoning for years. We’ve been warning of increased racial violence and increased child poverty and increased education and income inequality … and the stock market soars.
Why do you think the stock market soars above such misery?
We, the privileged, cannot afford to be happy right now. We might not have consciously complied but our situation is the result of immorality getting the upper hand. We must embrace Dr. King’s dream…ing. He went to the mountain top and saw a different, beautiful other side. Privilege is anything but beautiful.
We all know by now that Dr. King’s life was no Jesus-model. Yet no other man in history created so much hope. I know I was young when I started to dream, but few really good things happen without first hoping that they will. The struggle is converting the hope to action and that might be easier for the younger than the older. But dreaming is the same for us all.
And you know what? It feels kind of good to reach down into yourself and find some hope in these miserable days of darkness. Try it. Thanks, Dr. King.
A beautiful piece Jim. Thanks to both you, and Dr. King, the world is slowly but surely becoming a better place.