Here’s a column I wrote in The Herald-Sun several years ago. I like to repost it every year as my MLK day tribute. Also, here’s an old Ben Harper performance of “Like a King,” also appropriate for today.
Awakening to the meaning of the dream
The phone rang on an early Tuesday morning, as I lay asleep in bed.
“Hey Ge-off!” my friend Devon excitedly exclaimed. “Guess what we can do on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?”
“Umm … I dunno … sleep?”
“There’s this group that encourages a bunch of service events so you can get involved and do something good for the community on the holiday – like Martin would have wanted it – and not just take the day off.”
“Umm … OK … sounds good.”
Grumble, grumble, grumble.
While I was looking forward to a three-day trip to Washington, D.C.,to visit Devon and a few other friends, I hadn’t planned on doing anything extra special on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.Truth be told, a day before the holiday, I was more interested in a different King – B.B. The “King of the Blues” performed last Sunday at Constitution Hall, and I wanted to go. In a weird way, I thought it would have been an appropriate homage to MLK. Surely the man who fought for civil rights would know a thing or two about the blues.
Instead, I would perform some good ol’ fashioned community service inthe nation’s capital, the same place King delivered his famous “dream”speech.
A Greater DC Coalition, a branch of the nationwide Martin Luther KingJr. Coalition, held a week worth of service events culminating Jan. 21with thousands of volunteers who participated in about 50 projects,
The Coalition encouraged a “day on” rather than taking the day off.President Clinton signed the Holiday and Service Act in 1994 totransform MLK Day into a day of service.Buttons and T-shirts distributed to volunteers proudly proclaimed MLK as a “holiday of service.”
“Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve,” King said. “You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love and you canbe that servant.”
Since I was born after King’s assassination, my only exposure to his life was through media. I read in history classes about his importance. Of course, I listened to the famed “I have a dream”speech. I watched movies about King’s life.I could not fully appreciate the message, however, until witnessing the inequity for myself. My weekend in D.C. provided that experience. Yes, spending time in the nation’s capital – the very place where King uttered those immortal words – opened my eyes and brought the civil rights leader’s speech to life.
D.C. is the very symbolic essence of our nation’s enduring freedom,yet, at the same time, encapsulates like few other places the glaring gap of racial inequality.King’s words delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug.28, 1963, still ring true today.
“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vastocean of material prosperity,” he said.Low-income D.C. communities, for instance, experience among the highest rates of infant mortality, cancer, diabetes and food-related diseases in the country. Ward 8 hasn’t had a grocery store since Safeway closed more than three years ago!
Thus, Devon and I spent the holiday planting onion chives at UrbanOasis, an urban mini-farm located on the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s to provide fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers to residents who have little access to such things.Residents there have one-sixth the access to fresh produce as those living west of Rock Creek Park in more affluent sections of the district.Later in the day, I visited the FDR memorial. One quote stood out in my mind.
“Among American citizens there should be no forgotten men and noforgotten races,” Roosevelt said.
Though a celebratory parade rang out Jan. 21 on nearby Martin LutherKing Avenue, any other day, the people living in southeast D.C. seem lost in the shuffle of humanity. Much of St. Elizabeth’s grounds are abandoned and run down.
Driving home from D.C., I had further time for reflection.
Lyrics froma Tracy Chapman song struck me.The black streets of America kill the dreams of America.A single tear strolled down my cheek. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I felt pain. Pain for our nation’s scars. Pain for the slave’s plight. Pain for a black man’s life. Pain for my white ancestors and the responsibility they bear. Pain for my own prejudices, hatred and racial fears.To truly accept our country’s past – a nation divided in two by black and white – hurts.The black streets of America kill the dreams of America.
Poverty, crime and destitute living conditions crush the illusion o fequal footing.But there is hope. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in D.C. showed why. All throughout Washington, black, white, yellow, red, young, old worked together for a common cause – service. There was more to it than sharing a purpose. Folks actually enjoyed spending time with one another.At the Urban Oasis, jazz music played while we worked. Children frolicked about in the snowy remnants outside. Fun was had by many, a promising sign.
King planted the seed, and while it’s been 34 years since his death,much progress has been made in race relations. Much more is yet to be done.For King’s vision of true equality to blossom to its pure beauty of colorful diversity, we must all confront our fears and step out of our comfort zones. Change occurs, not in the classroom, but in life.
One garden at a time.