Wednesday, April 16, 2008


A Long Time Since Dr. King

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on 4/10/08 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

Dr. Martin Luther King is one of those people that we all think we know about, but when it comes right down to it, how much do we really remember? I’d always known Dr. King was an important civil rights leader, but, like so many lessons that I learned in grade school, the actual details of his life escaped me. I didn’t remember more than two facts: that he had given the “I Have a Dream” address in the civil rights era and that he had been assassinated. Last week, when National Public Radio started running stories related to the fortieth anniversary of his death, I realized just how little I knew about this man who changed our nation and the face of civil rights for the world. I was embarrassed by my ignorance.

It so happened that the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center was featuring a one-man show titled Dr. King’s Dream last Friday. I figured I ought to go to renew my acquaintance with the history of this great man. As an added bonus, the Center was offering a free afternoon show for students and their accompanying adults. Having no children of my own, I borrowed a child and went to the show.

The Mixed Blood production of Dr. King’s Dream was sponsored by a collaboration between the New York Mills Public Library and the Cultural Center and were funded, in part, by a grant from the Lake Region Arts Council through a Minnesota State Legislative appropriation. The play is an hour-long monologue in answer to the question posed to him by his friend, “When were you most frightened?” as they wait to leave the Memphis motel for dinner on the evening that Dr. King was killed. Dr. King is played by Warren C. Bowles, a veteran member of the Mixed Blood Theater Company.

Upon entering the Cultural Center on Friday, one saw a makeshift stage in the middle of the gallery that was set with a simple gray cloth backdrop, a wooden chair, a black rotary phone on a stand, and a lectern. The play began with a recording of gospel music, and then a flesh-and-blood Dr. King walked onto the stage.

Ninety percent of the play is composed of Dr. King’s own words as assembled by the Mixed Blood Theater Company. Besides “I have a dream,” most of Dr. King’s words were new to me. Each sentence was a revelation of a man who stood up to the racist status quo and created a movement against the might of a powerful government, a movement that was characterized by King’s abiding commitment to nonviolence. King was a man who changed the face of America with only his will and his words and was then violently killed for daring to do so.

Dr. King was assassinated at the age of 39, and this fortieth anniversary of his death marks a turning point. From now on, his life will always have been shorter than the amount of time since he was alive. Perhaps it is even more essential, then, that we remember the legacy he left, and Dr. King’s Dream was a moving and engaging way to celebrate the highlights of Dr. King’s life.

Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, King followed his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a pastor. He attended segregated public schools in Atlanta, received a B.A. from Morehouse College, a B.D. from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and a doctorate from Boston University. In 1954 he accepted the pastorale of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. By that point, he was already a member of the executive committee for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1955, he accepted the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. After Rosa Parks defied the existing law and refused to give up her bus seat for a white person, King led the blacks of the entire city to boycott the buses. Local people would walk for miles, hitchhike, and carpool instead of riding the buses, causing the city to outlaw hitchhiking, carpooling, and loitering in an effort to increase bus ridership. The city was unsuccessful, despite the arrest of Dr. King and the bombing of his home. After 385 days, the bus segregation laws were overturned, and Dr. King joined the black community on their first bus rides in over a year.

In 1957, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to lead the civil rights movement. The ideals of the organization were based in Christianity, but King took its operational techniques from the nonviolent philosophy of the Indian leader Gandhi. Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles, spoke over twenty-five hundred times, and wrote five books and numerous articles. He led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama that caught the attention of the entire world and directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C. of a quarter million people for whom he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the course of his life, King was arrested upwards of twenty five times and assaulted at least four times.

In 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support the black sanitary public works employees. They had been on strike for higher wages and better treatment after the senseless deaths of two black workers crushed by the mechanism of the very garbage truck they were forced to shelter inside of. In his last speech at a church in Memphis, King hinted that he knew he might not have long to live. Five days later, at 6:01pm on April 4, 1968, King was shot by James Earl Ray while standing on the second floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine motel. The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 100 cities.

Dr. King’s Dream was a one-hour window into one-man’s lifetime world-changing accomplishments culminating in an ear-splitting gunshot. After the show, I had a chance to speak to the actor portraying Dr. King. Bowles explained that the response to the show has changed over the eighteen years he has performed it. As Dr. King has become more distanced from the people in time, so have people become less engaged in his story.

I was curious to learn how the New York Mills youngsters felt about the show. The afternoon performance was not full, but I was pleased to see that all the students who were in the audience remained attentive and focused throughout the hour-long performance. I had the opportunity to speak with some of them after the show to hear their impressions. Aaron Arno was moved by the piercing sound effect of the deadly gunshot in the final scene, and the story as presented was new to him. He “hadn’t heard this version before.” Will Pajari had already known a bit about Dr. King before, specifically he “knew most that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin.” Leah Roberts felt that the performance “was really interesting” and “realized how difficult the black people lived.”

Though the children of our small town have never had to face the challenges that black children faced during the time of segregation, I am glad that a few of them had the opportunity to glimpse a less fortunate world through the production of Dr. King’s Dream at the Cultural Center. I hope that more of them will be at the next event.

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