I am sharing here a powerful and timely essay written by a member of my congregation back in 1998, reflecting back on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This essay was shared with me by her daughter, Barbara, and is introduced by another of her daughters, Peggy. The author of the essay died in 2006. I share this with the permission of her family.
Going through boxes of old things I’ve saved, I found something I had to share. It’s especially appropriate that my family lived in LaFayette, Alabama, which is relevant to what my mother wrote and I will share here in her own words. My mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease for decades, was a woman way ahead of her time. Although she would be the first one to say that wasn’t true. I miss her every day, but in a way I’m glad she isn’t here today to see how far we have not come yet in America, in some ways. Finding this brought back so many memories, and some tears. She, and these experiences from our short time living in Troy surely had a big part in making me who I am today – be that good or not. Enough of me, here’s from my mother. What I found was a “rejection” letter from submitting this essay to “The Lutheran” magazine. Rejection letter was dated April 29, 1998. The events described in this essay took place in 1968.
Here are the words of Anna B. Wright:
Outside a storm threatened. The sky was black; there were no stars. Inside the comfortable middle class home that Thursday night, the world’s problems seemed remote. our family, seated before the television set, had retreated into the romantic world of Daniel Boone. Suddenly, as lightning cut across the sky, the sharp edge of reality split the screen: “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot!” Disbelief. Belief. Sadness.
Sadness – this was the overwhelming feeling that filled the darkness, for the storm without had extinguished the light and I sat in the dark, feeling sadness, sorrow for the world and for my children. My children – yes, my own two daughters; and my children, the high school students at the all negro high school in which I taught, where I was the first and only white teacher they had ever had.
Friday dawned cloudy. I woke with a feeling of foreboding. this morning would the eyes of my young black students accuse me as they accused White America? As I approached my classroom, I observed a stillness about the children as they stood with sober faces, talking quietly among themselves. Someone had written carefully across the blackboard, “Let us bow our heads in prayer and in honor of this great man, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Amen.” It was not customary for me to read from the Bible, but this morning I turned to the Beatitudes and read, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” these words would be heard again at the funeral service in Atlanta.
Throughout the day I realized that they knew that I, too, was sad. In that sense we were not separate or different; we were mourning together. I attempted, however, to follow the routine class activities. Ironically, the vocabulary list assigned contained words from a story of Edgar Allen Poe, much of whose writing is somber and tragic. The students took the words from the list – melancholy, desolate, solace, bleak – and wrote their sentences: “The day is bleak – I would like to give solace to Mrs. King – Today is one of melancholy for most Americans.” Betty wrote simply, “I am desolate.”
Except for the bell and the quiet passage of students from room to room, the classes seemed to move imperceptibly one into the other. I experienced an openness in the classroom, in the lounge with my co-workers, in the lunchroom, in the library. I understood that they were not looking at me as a white person who was different today from the person they had come to know day by day as their teacher and friend. They did not “wear the mask” as one of their poets (Paul Laurence Dunbar) had once said, to hide their true feelings from me. I felt ashamed that I had been apprehensive.
Indeed, participating in sorrow had drawn us closer. Sarah, the idealistic one, was going about the business of typing the school paper. “Are you sad?” I asked. “Not really,” she replied thoughtfully. “He accepted death. We should accept it. we should work for peace just as he did.”
Once in English class Sarah had written about the American dream: “This is America, where beliefs are expressed freely and individually, yet all are united by the same bonds of loyalty and patriotism. This is America, where people from all paths of life can walk side by side in peace and call each other brother.”
Sarah wrote her essay in 1968, and in 1968, as Dr. King was laid to rest, the choir sang the words written by James Russell Lowell in the nineteenth century. “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side.”
This is 1998. We are about to enter the twenty-first century. The dream has not yet been fully realized. This is the moment to decide.