Knowledge needs deep roots of renewal
As we were cleaning out the apartment, moving apart for our first “real jobs”, my best friend and roommate came into the living room with a handful of ties. “Can you tie these for me?” He was one of the smartest people I have ever known, and yet, had no Knowledge of some of the simpler things that are important. I understood – as I had been through this exact experience when I was 13 and someone showed me how to tie a tie before a big event in Junior High. Now I was able to repay and renew that favor…
So much of the Knowledge from my college years was not from books or classes even – but from the people and relationships I built (and broke) there. Lessons about what to say, when to say it, how to act, both in public and in private, were honed in the short number of years in comparison with the rest of my life. And as I write about often, the group that was most central to my education and Knowledge revolved around the Youth Group at Highland Park Methodist Church.
The team that Knows you…
Similarly, MLK had built with his peers the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – a band of church leaders who shared a tight faith and the courage to act it out in the world of the South with the Knowledge it would cost them all dearly. The SCLC was constantly moving forward on the path to changing our Knowledge of what Rights are Civil, and how we would need to change as a country to live out the dream that it was founded with. After the success in Alabama they were now ready to take the national stage, and that, of course, leads us to the March on Washington.
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize the desperate condition of blacks in the southern U.S. and an opportunity to place organizers’ concerns and grievances squarely before the seat of power in the nation’s capital. Organizers intended to denounce the federal government for its failure to safeguard the rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and blacks. JFK initially opposed the march outright because he was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation.
However, the organizers were firm that the March would proceed. With the march going forward, the Kennedys decided it was important to work to ensure its success. President Kennedy was concerned the turnout would be less than 100,000. Therefore, he enlisted the aid of additional church leaders and Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers who had also bailed MLK out of jail earlier, to help mobilize demonstrators for the cause.
… keeps you renewed and focused…
The group acquiesced to presidential pressure and influence, and the event ultimately took on a far less strident, more optimistic and positive tone. As a result, some civil rights activists felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the “Farce on Washington”, and the Nation of Islam forbade its members from attending the march.
King’s consideration of the importance of music for the 1963 March made it a virtual who’s who of American artists including: Peter, Paul, and Mary; Harry Belafonte; Camilla Williams for Marian Anderson; Bob Dylan; and Joan Baez, to name only a few. But the central voice and character was by far Mahalia Jackson – a constant companion on the Civil Rights trail over the previous 15 years. The speech we all know – and I would encourage you to listen to it… and watch it from the beginning. He had 7 paragraphs prepared, and was reading them as it was prepared, frankly in a monotone droll.
But listen carefully about 12 minutes in… Sensing he needed encouragement, and recalling a theme she had heard him use in earlier speeches, Jackson cried out to MLK from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!!.” And at that moment, as can be seen in films of the speech, MLK pauses, looks over, and then leaves his prepared notes behind to improvise the entire next section of his speech—the historic section that famously begins, “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….” and you will hear Mahalia shouting out “YES!!” He begins to speak directly from his heart, from his personal Knowledge of what was at stake, and what was needed now. And behind him was the team he had built, forged, and been through the previous 20 years together with… all there to see this transformative and renewing moment for all of us.
Renew the Deepest Knowledge of yourself…
As I carefully tied each of the ties, I knew that it would be the last time we would be together like this. Single, full of promise, full of Knowledge, and also not sure of exactly what would happen around the many twists ahead. The knots, I am sure, have faded, and I hope the ties themselves are lost, but I can affirm we and most of that Youth Group are still in touch, and we rewew each other often with stories from those days. We are currently planning a reunion with the Minister that bound us all together tightly… We Know what we had, and have, and that renews us.
Heading into Black History month next week, it was good to refresh my Knowledge of MLK, and read many of these stories I didn’t know. And yet, how many of them are familiar – opportunities forged within families, encouraged by friends, developed through trials and tribulations. Always supported throughout by a deep and abiding faith that renewed him to stay the course he had taken up. While we all think we cannot be like him, in many ways, our own stories have their own victories of renewal, and in this New Year, after the years we have been through, a greater need to dig deep and find that fire in each of us that he saw, he called out, and is now needed more than ever. From the actual March, Mahalia encourages us also – How I Got Over.