I almost said the Pledge of Allegiance today. I couldn’t quite do it, but I mouthed the words, which is closer than I’ve gotten to saying in twenty years or so. I attended tonight’s school board meeting because there was some library business on the agenda, and they open every meeting with the Pledge.
It has been a rather momentous day, and for me one full of contradictions. I watched the inauguration in the school cafeteria this morning, and then I went down to the post office to pick up the mail, only to find a flyer posted that promised to give you The True Facts about Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday my county did not observe yesterday. This is a flyer you can find on the internet fairly easily, as it comes from a site that uses Dr. King’s name full name, minus the Junior, as its URL. I won’t link to it because I don’t wish to give any more boost to its PageRank, but essentially it accuses Dr. King of being a Jew-hating Communist, among other things. It’s an excellent site to use when discussing information literacy — excellent, at least, if you are fairly certain that no one in the group you are educating will mistake its “facts” for truth.
Needless to say, it was a little distressing to come upon such a thing right after watching a black man being sworn in as President of the United States. Much has been made of Obama as “post-racial,” and he took a fair amount of slack from the left for not being black enough, or not recognizing the Civil Rights movement enough. But it was hard to listen to his victory speech without hearing the echoes of Dr. King’s final address, and it was hard to watch today’s ceremony, with the Tuskegee airmen and Aretha Franklin and Lincoln’s Bible and a crowd on the mall, and to hear on the radio this morning about John Lewis going to stand by the Lincoln Memorial early in the morning, before any of the ceremonies began, and to look at whitehouse.gov today, with its promises of transparency and its prominent coverage of the Obama administration’s recognition of the national day of service — it was hard to see all these things and not feel in some way that perhaps that check Dr. King spoke of so many years ago on that same Mall has been made good on — has perhaps, at the very least, had an installment paid.
Yesterday and today have been about recognizing big names, big people. And that is all well and good, but I want to take a moment to remember some other people, too.
I have heard from time to time in my years as an activist that I am an ingrate and don’t recognize that I have my freedom of speech because people fought and died in wars — the implication being that I should have nothing to complain about and ought to shut up and be grateful that I’m not speaking German. I don’t in any way wish to diminish the very real sacrifices made by people in the military. But I would also like for people to acknowledge the equally real sacrifices made by those who fought in the Civil Rights movement — the people who were beaten and jailed and killed — Medgar Evers and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and James Chaney and all the many others who lost their lives in the struggle to make sure that the rights promised to all Americans in our founding documents were given to all Americans. And I’d like to recognize as well the courage of all the footsoldiers: the people who refused to ride the buses in Montgomery, who marched from Selma, who answered telephones and stuffed envelopes and kept records (for a fascinating look at that side of the moment, I highly recommend Freedom Song, a memoir by Mary King detailing her work as a sort of press secretary for SNCC), and all those who helped.
The summer before I graduated from high school, I met up with my friend at the thirtieth anniversary of the most famous March on Washington. I don’t remember a great deal about the day, just that it was unbelievably hot, and that I was so hot I couldn’t get myself to pay attention to anything else. But I had spent the night before with the mother of Rachel, my mother’s best friend from high school, who had herself been on that great original march thirty years before. Hilda, Rachel’s mother, said to me that morning that she had packed me a lunch — the very same lunch she had packed for her daughter and her compatriots on their bus ride to Washington in 1963 — peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, food that would keep well in the heat, because the bus would not be able to stop at many restaurants.
I would like a day — many days, really — when we remember and celebrate these people in the way that we remember and honor our military veterans on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. In the meantime, though, I shall rejoice at what they helped to accomplish, and what I saw today.