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A day late, and a dollar short

Apologies, Gentle Readers, for not having posted a Martin Luther King, Junior Day note of any kind. We should, as Americans, work to observe the day, and I did spend some time both discussing the Civil Rights movement with the Perfect Non-Reader (of this blog) and going through some of the texts of Dr. King himself. If y’all didn’t see the news, the King Center Archive is now on-line. It’s an amazing time-eater, it really is. I could spend days looking at stuff like this and this and this.

Anyway, I missed the chance to write a MLK Day note. And what I wanted to say—you know, when I was in high school, to the extent they told me anything about Civil Rights, the whole movement pretty much started when Rosa Parks got on the bus and was over by the time she sat down, and the full credit for it goes to Martin Luther King, Junior. No roots, no branches, not even much of a struggle—segregation and Jim Crow was overthrown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, and now let’s go back to winning the Cold War. It was deliberate, and while the women who taught the American History, Civics and Free Enterprise classes at my high school were good union liberals, it was clear they felt constrained on the issue (even more on Civil Rights than on the anti-Vietnam movement, in which I feel sure they both participated) and did not make a stand. Ironic, I suppose.

I was reminded of this because the library that employs me is at the moment enjoying an exhibition of Robert Templeton’s paintings on the wall; Frederick Douglass glares down from the wall opposite the circ desk. I was joking with a student worker about how I would have preferred Martin, and I think perhaps even Malcolm, although my co-worker disagreed with me about the latter. But it was clear that the student, all of nineteen or so, had no idea who Frederick Douglass was, or why he was on the wall. I don’t know whether I would have known, when I was nineteen. I would not have understood the work that I can see right now, hung on the far wall, which is called Eighty Years in The Black Civil Rights Movement.

Digression: there is a novel I read in, I would guess, 1996 or 1997, set in the thirties or forties, in which a teenager who is gifted at jazz (I think a bass player, but I can’t swear to it) gets an opportunity to join a big band for the summer, travelling with them and playing with them. There’s a scene, a magnificent scene, on the bus (or possibly a train?) where the members of the band start reciting the Gettysburg Address, and talking some history into the kid’s head. Does anybody know the book? I want to reread it, at least that one great scene, and I may want to pass it along to my Perfect Non-Reader, if it’s appropriate—I have a vague sense it was a YA novel, but it ain’t necessarily so. End Digression.

It’s not a great painting. The collage effect doesn’t quite work, and the composition doesn’t quite work, and besides the whole thing is incredibly heavy-handed. And yet, there it is: the sands of time, and in the middle of it, the right man at the right moment, Martin Luther King (being arrested. Not being given the Peace Prize, not being listened to, not being shot) at the crux of history but visibly only a tiny part of it. Eighty years in the black civil rights movement. Lest we forget.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,