A man sits in a jail and writes a letter using the margins of newspapers and scraps of other paper. As he scrawls out the letter, the man quotes Augustine, Aquinas, Buber, Tillich, and T. S. Eliot. Each of those would have a powerful influence on my own life, but to quote them from jail? This is no ordinary man. He would argue that point, but the man was a gift to us. His passion was contagious, and he lived that passion.
My Martin Luther King story:
A child of the sixties, or seventies, I was too young to understand the civil rights movement until I was about seven or eight-- and by that time, much of the most dramatic aspects had run their course. The schools integrated without my notice-- my schools anyway. My father's black business associates at IBM lived in our neighborhood and visited our house. My favorite classmate in French class was a pretty black girl, and neither of had a clue that some did not like our friendship.
In 1974, I entered my Sophomore year in Richardson High School as a typically awkward blend of terribly shy and yet extroverted. I would throw myself into passions and interests, but when in mundane social settings, I would tend to be quiet and reserved.
My mother and my Speech Class instructor, Mrs. McClure, conspired against me-- in my presence-- and I was powerless to do anything about it.
On Parents Night, my mother dragged me along to accompany her, and meet with each of my teachers as did many of the other parents of incoming students. I did well in that class, despite the stark terror of having to periodically stand before two or three classes brought in to add to the torment as I gave an oral presentation at a podium.
Mrs. McClure was a pretty, blonde, twenty-something, with a smoky voice. She had written and choreographed a presentation based upon several Martin Luther King speeches and needed at least a dozen students to agree to participate in a yet-to-be-booked debut. Despite my humble, "You can get many others better than me" objections, my mother and Mrs. McClure drafted me into the performance.
By that time in the semester, I was already realizing I liked public speaking. My first taste of it had been in seventh grade when we had to write a story and deliver it before the class. I knew my story was good, but I was in agony before being called up to read it before the class. When I did, I changed. The others loved my story and suddenly I was one of the "cool" people in school. Go figure.
Anyway, I showed up at the rehearsals and may have been the only sophomore in the group-- all older, taller (including the girls) and all with more experience. Many had been in school plays and such. I was NOT in my element, but persevered.
The performance was booked, and we gathered in the school parking lot one Wednesday evening just before sunset. Before piling-in the cars to caravan to the Elementary School Auditorium-- our venue-- Mrs. McClure came clean with us.
"I am dating this man who has a son in Boy Scouts. He was appalled to find that the Scout Troop was all white-- no blacks even though that High School was about twenty percent minority. He mentioned this to some of the other fathers and said he had never heard so many racist remarks in all his life.
"Well, we talked about it, and I came up with this idea. I wrote this little play just so that we could maybe make a difference for those kids-- maybe even some of the adults. Let them hear the words of hope and promise and take it to heart?
"Well, anyway, I decided I need to tell you the back-story because this could be very serious. What I mean is that by-and-large, the audience is going to be hostile to what I have asked you to do. I don't know, but some may walk out, they may yell ugly things. I simply do not know what to expect. What I want of you is to continue no matter what happens just as we have rehearsed. If they hate you-- it is the message they cannot hear-- not your performance. Also, I now need to ask you if you think you can do that. I should have told you this before, but I am telling you now, and if you want to back out-- that might even be the wise thing to do."
Everyone, of course, was willing to go ahead. When "nigger jokes" were told, my crowd had always found them distasteful and hateful and did not participate. Such jokes never received a laugh, but usually received criticism of the teller. In Texas, I never saw racism with anymore force than a whimper. It was not part of my culture. It did exist, but it was never near me.
I sat cross-legged in the back of Mrs. McClure's old Suburban (those were ranch vehicles in those days, not luxury SUV's) with three pretty schoolmates, while others packed the rear and front seats. Still others were in other cars going with us. We rehearsed all the way.
We arrived, prepared ourselves behind the curtain on the stage, took our places, waited for the curtain to open and, when they did, stared into the lime lights. The instant we began, we moved to our marks in constant and fluid motion, no one messed up a line, and the one act performance was over too soon for many of us-- we had fun.
I saw some angry looks, and a few fathers collected their sons (three, maybe as many as five out of perhaps two hundred) and walked out with words being uttered I could not make out-- but angry words they were. We pressed on without a hitch throughout. The curtain closed when done.
At first there was enthusiastic applause. That quickly died to about 60% continuing, somehow muted as about 40% held their hands still in their laps. There was discussion we could not hear among the boys. The curtain re-opened just after Mrs. McClure beamed with pride at us, and then joined us for a bow.
We joined hands in a single line across the stage and bowed together. We watched with interest the boys stony-faced glares mixed with smiling and applauding boys. The applause grew and the peer pressure of those applauding had more force than the peer pressure of those resentful. That applause was for Doctor King.
Applause is also due to Mrs. McClure. God bless her bleeding heart.