A year ago or so, my cousin Dan (a cousin on my father’s side of the family) who lives in Florida paid a visit. I mention my father’s side because that fact meant that I had very little connection with him; my mother was so devastated by my Chaplain father’s death in WWII that I was given little access to his remaining family.
But Dan and I have an everlasting connection. He and his twin brother Jim were heavily involved in the civil rights movement in Florida. In fact, Dan brought with him on his visit a recently-produced DVD that details their story of demonstration and arrests while they were students at the University of Florida. On this particular visit, he also gave me a copy of a letter that I don’t remember receiving – a thank you note for supporting their participation in those demonstrations in the early 60’s . What he told me on this visit was astonishing: evidently I was the only family member who responded to a request for financial assistance; he never forgot that.
This morning I learned that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.” Hearing this reminder this morning brought back a flood of memories from that era, including Jim and Dan’s involvement. When I figured out that I was in my late teens and early 20’s when the civil rights memories were made, I was amazed. I was horrified by racism and supported financially the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, and other appeals – including, evidently my cousins’. Since I had no job at that time, I don’t know where this money came from, but my heart was totally into this movement.
I remember with astonishing clarity the “I have a dream speech.” I was in tears in front of my television, moved by the HUGE integrated crowd, the emotions of the speakers and musicians, and most importantly THE SPEECH. I remember exactly when Martin Luther King moved into the biblically-influenced section of this speech, prompted by Mahalia Jackson’s shout from behind him, “Preach it, Martin!” Since I’m a wordsmith I was struck then and still am with the beauty of that spontaneous outpouring. Later I learned how steeped MLK’s speeches were in the words of the Bible, the sermons of other black preachers and writers, the call and response worship of black churches. That knowledge just made his speaking and writing even more thrilling to me. I still cry every time I read and hear the speech.
In this stage of life, I have a different connection with civil rights. I live the African American experience with my husband every day (albeit though through the eyes of white privilege). And I support with my finances and my heart the lives of seven children from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds who live in Africa, South America, and Asia through Compassion International.
But I still have my tangential understanding through my cousins of what it meant to truly follow a radical Jesus in the 60’s. Dan is still a civil rights activist in Florida. But Jim, who had been the student body president at the University of Florida and a senior looking forward to graduation during the time I’m describing, was stripped of his presidency and expelled from the university for his support of the civil rights movement. He fell into a deep depression and committed suicide in his early 20’s – another casualty of a movement which should never have been necessary in the first place.