I remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I was six years old, home sick from school and watching television in the living room while my mother was making me some lunch in the kitchen, and this big, black, round face popped up on the 14 inch screen as big as life shouting something about having a dream
We didn’t see many black faces on TV back then, and in my town in Central Vermont there was only one, so I was told by a classmate, who said he lived on Berlin street. He married a white woman and worked for the state as a mechanic. I’d never seen him but I believed Dougy when he told me he was as dark as the night, big, with lots of muscles, and scary looking. Now there was an excited black man, with a pleasant face, on my TV shouting about freedom, equality, and justice in words that rhymed and I wanted to know more. I thought I saw tears running down his cheeks and something about him reminded me of the pictures I had seen of Jesus praying in the garden. He had tears running down his face too, and blood running down his forehead from a crown of thorns. They both had the same determined expression etched in their sweating faces.
“Mom,” I called. “Come quick and see this.”
My mother stepped into the living room from the kitchen carrying a tray with an egg salad sandwich, some Wise potato chips, and a glass of milk. I didn’t like milk but my Dad insisted we kids drink it, said it’s good for you and always finished by saying: “it will put hair on your chest.” I didn’t want hair on my chest and it didn’t escape my attention that mom never drank milk.
“What’s he saying, mom. Why is he so upset?”
My mother set the tray down on the coffee table and wiped her hands on her apron. Her face scrunched up like she had an itch in church and couldn’t scratch.
“Well, he’s trying to get more rights for colored people.”
“What’s a colored people? ”
“The African Americans. Some have black skin and some brown, so they like to be referred to as colored,” she said.
“Why do they need more rights? There ain’t no more slavery.” I was puzzeled. I remembered the history lessons at school and reading about how President Lincoln freed all the black people during the civil war, more than a hundred years ago.
“Don’t say ain’t there’s no such word.”
“But why?” I ignored her correction of my grammar. The man was still shouting from a podium and waving his hands in the air as he spoke to a sea of black faces and policemen in dark blue uniforms standing in the back.
“They still aren’t being treated right. Especially in the South. They cant go to schools with whites, can’t ride in the front of a bus, and eat in some restaurants. It’s terrible there.”
When she talked about it I thought she was getting upset and going to cry like the black man on TV, but I wanted to know why they can’t eat in the same restaurants and go to school. I remembered seeing a black girl on the news surrounded by soldiers with rifles walking into a school in a place called Alabama. It scared me just seeing her like that, a small and frightened brown child, holding her books up against her chest like a shield, huddled in a mass of angry white faces of grown men and women shouting things at her. A white woman in a dress standing on the sidewak called her a Nigger. Even I knew that was wrong. It seemed like a war down there.
“Why are people so upset? If they want to eat in a restaurant, why can’t they?”
Mom thought about it for a minute. I could seen the skin on the bridge of her nose wrinkle and then she said: “Eat your lunch honey before it gets cold ”
“But it’s a sandwich,” I said looking down at the tray in case I had missed something. I asked her again:”Why don’t people just let them do what everyone else does?”
There was a muffled sound like my mother’s voice coming from the kitchen.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t know, ” she responded. She didn’t sound happy. I didn’t ask her again.
I just wondered how long it would take for a dream to come true. How long before everyone was treated the same.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King died before I could grow up and go see him to get an answer.