Friday, January 14, 2011

Why Martin Matters to Me


To many folks Martin Luther King, Jr., is simply a historical figure that did some great things. To others he is a icon of greatness; a saint.

To me, he is personal.

While I never had the opportunity to actually meet him, he substantially shaped my life and my values – if not by direct contact, by the relationships and exposure I had with some of his closest lieutenants, family, friends, and others he impacted personally.

I was blessed to have ‘grown up’ in an ambiance where MKL was truly “King”, the ATL (Atlanta, GA.)

While racism was – and is – as real as it gets in the ATL (as it is everywhere else), the people I associated with as a young professional were many of his people; people that knew him as a man of principles; as a passionate man; as a truly GREAT man.

I was extremely fortunate to ‘walk among giants’: Andy Young, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Martin Luther King, Sr. (Dr. King's dad - "Daddy King") among others. There is no way that interacting with these giants will not make an impression on you. These are men of character; men that truly changed everything.

Four snippets of stories come to mind:

[1] While Andy Young was Mayor of Atlanta, I worked with Shirley Franklin (who herself became Mayor years later) developing housing policy for the City. To the surprise of many, Mayor Young – and us as his staff – focused on entrepreneurship and quality economic growth rather than on deep social issues. We were consistently cognizant of the social issues – of course – but saw economic empowerment and job creation as the most expedient way to get past the institutional racism that was still prevalent at the time.

[2] Crossing paths with John Lewis, “my congressman next door”, was a common occurrence as I worked with non-profits throughout metro Atlanta. His sensitivity and caring attitude simply overtook whatever meeting he was in, and would instantly set the tone of collaboration and partnership. (NOTE: Some may remember that we've shown the movie “Walk in my shoes” in the Civic Building.)

[3] C.T. Vivian, one of the youngest lieutenants of Dr. King, was the facilitator for my Leadership Atlanta series on race… I will never forget his advice: “Be careful of drowning in the cesspool of your own making”… So true.

[4] There was a time in my life when I was a young architect full of passion for social activism, working as the Executive Director of the Atlanta Community Design Center (a non-profit supported by architects and businesses to provide design and planning assistance to other non-profits.) One of the first projects I embarked on was the conceptual design for the African American Experience Museum (today co-located with the Auburn Avenue library.) At the unveiling of the model depicting the design, a ‘scroll’ was signed that would be housed in the museum. After other dignitaries (including Hank Aaron) signed it, MLK, Sr., signed it; then they asked me to sign it. Wow. One of those ‘life changing moments’ for sure.

There are countless other stories growing up in Atlanta where I would cross path again and again with those close to MLK, Jr… His wife and kids at the MLK Center; his peers and children of his friends at Morehouse and Spelman; and, ‘regular folks’ at the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack or one of the many soul food eateries around downtown Atlanta… These are stories that make for fond memories of a great man that is a real man to me; someone that I feel I know personally through the stories of those he personally touched…

One of the most poignant stories least told about Dr. King is the unfinished business of his legacy: The coming together of Latinos and African Americans… After all, MLK, Jr., was a contemporary of Cesar Chavez. While they never met, they exchanged telegrams as they each progressed on their commitment to non-violent social change… Here are excerpts from an interview with Jorge Mariscal, Professor of Spanish, Chicano/Chacana Lieterature, University of California San Diego):

"So it was an extremely violent period in our history, and 1968 was a presidential election year. 

Dr. King had moved away from a kind of race-based organizing to organizing working people of every color, and he had plans to do something called the Poor People’s Campaign which would be a non-violent civil disobedience movement in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968. 

Cesar Chavez, early in that year, had gone on a fast specifically to insist that his movement was non-violent. There had been some violent incidents around Delano and around California, and he wanted to remind his own people but also everyone in the country that he was following a kind of Gandhian tradition of nonviolent militancy, is what he would call it. And, of course, Dr. King followed the same path. 

So although these two men never met, it’s interesting that they did exchange telegrams. Some historians believe that Cesar Chavez actually received a phone call from Martin Luther King but there’s no corroboration of that, so it seems that they not only never met but they never actually spoke to one another and yet they were following a similar path, working to organize working families, working class people of every color and also professing a nonviolent approach to social change…. 

 I think there’s no doubt that they would've met up, and there were some plans for them to meet in spring of 1968 and, of course, Dr. King was killed on April 4th. 

The UFW actually sent representatives to Atlanta to Dr. King’s office in the planning sessions for the poor people’s campaign, so the links were already being forged. 

People like Dolores Huerta, who was the vice president of the union at the time, was very active with some of Dr. King’s people and she attended the march in Memphis after Dr. King was assassinated and that was a march, again, for the Memphis sanitation workers and she also took a UFW delegation to Dr. King’s funeral. So, yes, there’s no doubt that they would've come together

I think the idea—and we can only fantasize here—of these two great social leaders coming together and their collective movements with Mexican Americans, Filipinos, poor whites and African-Americans, it would've been a tremendous shift in American history. And, unfortunately, whoever did assassinate Dr. King made sure that didn't happen… 

(The first telegram from Dr. King to Cesar Chavez was congratulating him on his work and his fast. Dr. King was very impressed and he even told one of his lieutenants, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, that he was thinking about going on a fast as well just to show the country that his movement coincided with what was happening in the farm worker movement. So he congratulated him. He said "you’re an inspiration to us all and, you know, I hope to meet you someday." Then the ties were made between the UFW and Dr. King’s organization in the planning for the poor people’s campaign. The only telegram sent by Cesar to Dr. King’s family was after Dr. King had been killed, so he sent a telegram of condolences to Coretta Scott King.")

So there. Yet another reason why Martin matters to me.

{Please don’t forget to hit the ‘follow’ button on the left so you get future postings of this blog.}

1 comment:

tony hausner said...

thanks for sharing such wonderful experiences. Martin Luther King was an incredible force and inspiration.

Post a Comment