Albany vs. Birmingham, then Washington

March on Washington was A. Philip Randolph's march
March on Washington was A. Philip Randolph’s march

Martin Luther King, Jr., declared “I have a dream today” on August 28, 1963, the 1,533rd anniversary of St. Augustine’s death. Fifty years ago.

I think I was eight or nine when I realized that black people made my dad nervous, but not me. After all, I had playground pencil fights with black boys from the other side of Rock Creek Park on a daily basis. Between first and eighth grade, I never had a homeroom teacher who wasn’t black. Like every child, I accidentally called my teacher “mom” a time or two. When I did, she was always black.

Don’t get me wrong. Whatever credit there is for this goes to my dad. He directed his life in such a way that I could grow up without feeling nervous. We did not have a house in a white suburb. My brother and I rode Metrobuses and sat down next to black people well before we knew that only a decade separated us from the regime of legal segregation in the South.

let-trumpet-sound-life-martin-luther-king-jr-stephen-oates-paperback-cover-artThe hallway in school had Dr. King’s words emblazoned on the wall (ostensibly to celebrate Black History Month, which always lasted for the whole year in the D.C. public schools): “I have a dream!”

So: We must indeed pause with reverence to remember the day when Dr. King actually spoke those words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, at the end of the summer of 1963.

An irony: The suite at the Willard Hotel where Dr. King spent the night after he delivered his speech? Bugged. By the police. Like our phones and e-mail during the Obama administration.

Better, though, to focus on 1963. And the tale of two police chiefs.

When Dr. King and–more importantly, really–A. Philip Randolph visited the White House to meet with President Kennedy and discuss holding the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the President joked: “Bull Connor has done a great deal for civil-rights legislation this year.”

President Kennedy referred to the police chief–and claimant to the mayoralty–of Birmingham, Alabama. (A city which did not exist when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.) Bull Connor ordered fire hoses turned on people kneeling in the streets. He sicked police dogs on peaceful demonstrators. Bull Connor ordered black children carried off to jail in school buses.

Mr. Laurie Pritchett, on the other hand, served as police chief of Albany, Georgia, in 1962. He avoided any use of violence in arresting peaceful demonstrators. He never raised a hand against anyone who had not raised a hand against him. On the day when Chief Pritchett and his wife were to celebrate their anniversary, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy actually called off the march they had planned, because they believed Chief Pritchett deserved to have the day off. The Albany Campaign of 1962–Dr. King’s first large-scale organized series of protests since the Birmingham bus boycott of ’56–resulted in very little media attention. It produced no real change.

Dr. Martin Luther KingThe Lord, of course, has His plan. And Dr. King never gave up. Things had not worked out as he had hoped in 1962. But in 1963, they did. The world watched, and black Birmingham proved the South wrong about segregation. Dr. King and his followers suffered nobly, and thereby proved that their cause was right.

But, also in the summer of 1963: Malcolm X’s followers egged Dr. King’s car. And Attorney General Robert Kennedy was convinced that one of King’s best friends was a Communist.

To be honest with you, I find Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail quite a bit more interesting than his “I Have a Dream” speech. His letter articulates a thoroughly convincing argument for his actions. On the other hand, his speeches generally present emotional Bible-based poems. Black pulpit oratory leaves this particular white boy (and student of St. Thomas Aquinas) pretty cold.

That said, both Dr. King’s speeches and his writings communicate the same fundamental truth: The man had no fear of death, because he loved God and Jesus Christ. Dr. King lived his life, first and foremost, as a churchman. The crescendo of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial focused on one word. Faith. We have faith in the promises of God, communicated in the Scriptures. The Civil Rights Movement, draped as it was in the trappings of a fashionable Gandhi-ism that would make it acceptable to the editors of the New York Times, proceeded, in fact, from the Holy Scriptures.

Probably won’t hear that at any of the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial next Wednesday. As I have tried to point out before, the prominent black orators of today do not speak from the Bible in the way Dr. King and his confreres did. The official commemorations this week will be as empty as they will be boring. (Fact is, the speaker program at the original March on Washington got boring, and the crowd was thinning out a bit by the time Dr. King finally got his turn to speak.)

The best way to commemorate Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech will be to read the same book that he read to prepare it: the Holy Bible.

Chief Laurie Pritchett in Albany GA

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