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Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK, Jr: Revolutionary love

I can not reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without reflecting on the book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," by Isabel Wilkerson.

It is a compelling book which brilliantly weaves the 'facts on the ground' about the 55 year-long Great Migration with the personal stories of three 'migrant' people - one who settled in New York City, one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles.

Social scientists have long documented the statistics, historians have recorded newspaper accounts, and writers like James Baldwin and entertainers like Ray Charles and sports heroes like Bill Russell have told their personal family histories.

What makes this book compelling and, indeed, "epic" is that Wilkerson has woven all of these pieces of the story together with the personal accounts of three people - who were, themselves, "migrants" - into one design that looks very much like all the symbols woven into the quilts which were used on The Underground Railroad.

Wilkerson argues that people who left the South only to create hometown-based communities in new places are more like refugees than migrants. They are more closely tied to their old friends and families, more apt to form tight expatriate groups, more attached by strings of endearment to the areas they left behind.

She argues that these people were better educated and more closely tied to their families than other scholars have assumed. She works on a grand, panoramic scale but also on a very intimate one, since this work of living history boils down to the tenderly told stories of three rural Southerners who immigrated to big cities from their hometowns.

Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people whose lives had followed the same basic pattern: early years in the South followed by relocation in either the North or the West. She winnowed this group down to three, each of whom had left home during a different decade.

The oldest, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, was a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife who moved to Chicago in 1937. Next is George Swanson Starling, who relocated to New York in 1945 from the Florida citrus groves after his efforts to organize fellow workers earned his employer’s ire and threatened his life.

Finally, and unforgettably, there is Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a 1953 transplant to Los Angeles, CA from Monroe, LA. Called 'Pershing' in his early years and then morphing into 'Bob', the West Coast bon vivant, Dr. Foster’s most famous patient, Ray Charles, would record a song about Dr. Foster’s way of running off with Mr. Charles’s women (not true).

The irony is that most of the "second wave" of migrants on the road to freedom was carried out on the actual railroads that connected the South to the North. These railways had been established to carry goods to make great profits which had been gathered from the cotton and sugar cane fields by the hands and on the backs of African Americans who were as bound in poverty by Jim Crow laws as they had been bound by the chains of slavery.

In each of the stories about the train ride to the North (Dr. Foster drove his car from Louisiana to Los Angeles), there is made mention that the migrants would always travel light and pack a box of food for the journey. The train ride was long, with occasional stops along the way to move the Black passengers into a segregated car while traveling through those states that still made that requirement - only to have to wait at yet another stop while the train unhitched the cars so the Black passengers could move again freely into the segregated cars.

It was a cruel portent of what was to await them in the North and West.

Indeed, Dr. Foster's story of traveling alone in his car from Louisiana to California is one where he often drove straight through the night, suffering along the way the indignities of being turned away from motels that wouldn't accept a person of color in their lodging.

He discovered that he had come from the clarity of the laws that required signs which said, "Coloreds Only" to the confounding invisibility of the version of "Jim Crow, North".

There were no guarantees of any comforts on the train - including food. If the children were going to be fed, it was going to be from the food they had packed for the trip.

I remember conversations I've had with a dear friend who is African American. He was born in South Carolina but went to school in Chicago, with relatives in Philadelphia, DC, and Delaware. Whenever he takes the train to visit his family, he always packs light but always, always with a box lunch.

In the past, I've gently teased him about that, the way friends do. "Oh, come on," I say. "The food on Amtrak isn't THAT bad. The cheeseburgers are actually not half bad and I love to treat myself to the cheese tray with a glass of white wine."

"Well, I know," he says, gently, with a peculiar sort of hesitancy

So, I tease him about being able to afford the admittedly high-priced fare.

"Yes, I know," he says, an unmistakable sadness creeping into his voice.

"Then, why not save yourself some time and fuss and just get something on the train?" I laugh, busting his chops. "It's part of the fun of a train ride!"

He sighs and says, "It's just what my people do. When you go on the train, you pack light and you pack some food. We've just always done it that way."

I have always heard that comment as a statement about family quirkiness. You know, the little family habits and traditions that don't make much sense, but life somehow doesn't make sense without them.

Now, I understand. Having read, "The Warmth of Other Suns," now, I hear the sadness in his voice in a different way.

The sadness is laced with the bitter poison of the stories he has no doubt heard from relatives who were 'migrants' to the North and refugees from the Jim Crow laws of the South.

It is also a sadness heavy with the knowledge that, even if he told me those stories, I probably wouldn't really 'get it'.

He's right. I haven't understood. Until now. And even then, I can't get my mind completely wrapped around the whole of it.

It takes enough energy to pack for a trip. It takes even more psychic energy to have to relive the stories of the past to tell it to a friend who probably wouldn't understand, anyway, that stories like that, combined with the racism that in some ways is more prevalent and virulent now, with a Black man in the White House, tend to make you live your life waiting for the rug of equality to be pulled out from your feet at any given time.

I won't be teasing him about that, any more.

A year before he was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon entitled, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." In that sermon, King called for revolutionary love, the urgency of change, and for ecumenical world community.

He wrote,
"When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
"Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to the ultimate reality . . . that God is love. . . and that . . if we love one another God dwells in us and God's love is perfected in us."

That 'perfected love' is far from perfect, but it is revolutionary.

It begins in the heart and stirs the soul. If one is open, it then moves to the intellect and causes thinking people - loving people - to make a choice to bring about change - even if only the small revolution of changing behavior.

Dr. King was right. Revolutionary love can - and will - change the world.

That won't happen in some far off, longed-for day. The Realm of God is within us. It begins with me and it begins with you - in the crevices and nooks and crannies of our hearts and souls where love is waiting, longing to be perfected.

In that 1976 sermon, Dr. King spoke of "the urgency of now." He ended that sermon with these words which are as pertinent and important now as they were then:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
Longing. Hope. Solidarity. Commitment. Choice.

Let the revolution begin.

And, let the people - especially those who follow the revolutionary love of Jesus - say, "Amen."


Brother David said...

I have traveled a number of times on Amtrak because I do not fly - anymore. Usually starting from San Antonio I have travelled to Los Angeles and on to Seattle or to Chicago.

I recall many black folk on the train, almost all with coolers of all sizes of food and drink. My meals were "free" with my room. I recall very few black folk eating in the dining car.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dahveed - Well, in the Northeast Corridor, it may be a bit different, in my experience, anyway. Then again, I've not been on an all nighter train and I don't eat in the dining car.

I fear your experience is probably closer to the truth than mine.