Precious Memories, how they linger
[Have there been events in your life that were so powerful you knew something changed for you, even if at the time you didn’t understand what or how? Martin Luther King Jr.’s presence has been a constant since I was seventeen. This is the third in a series of four reflections on these events. Truly “precious” memories can be discomfiting; they won’t mire us in our pasts but will point the way to possibilities in our presents.]
Dr. King preceded me at Boston University Graduate School of Theology by about a decade, but his presence there was strong. Since I had to pass qualifying exams in French and Greek, I needed a tutor. My advisor Per Hassing recommended an old man in Back Bay.
“He knows how to get students ready for the exams, and you wvill enjoy getting to know him,” my major professor, Per Hassing, said in his heavy Norwegian brogue. “He got Martin ready for his.”
The tutor was in his late seventies. One day when the radiator of his small apartment was cooking us, he took off his worn blue blazer, leaving him in the starched white shirt and maroon tie he always wore. He didn’t loosen his tie, but he did roll up his sleeves, revealing a blurred serial number tattooed on his left forearm. When I asked he acknowledged that he had been at Auschwitz and was grateful for his liberation by Soviet forces. Although someone who loved to talk, he didn’t speak again of Auschwitz.
“Did you tutor Dr. Martin Luther King?” I asked one day.
“Ah yes,” he said as his face brightened with obvious delight. “He was a good student, that Martin.”
“I’ve heard from Dr. DeWolf, his adviser, that Dr. King wasn’t a social activist while he was here in school. Is that true?”
This wasn’t as much a question about Dr. King as it was about me. In the spring of 1963, newspapers were filled with stories about Dr. King’s campaign in Birmingham. As the situation there intensified, school children were joining the protest in large numbers. King appealed for more marchers to come and fill the ranks vacated of those being arrested. A major march was scheduled for Good Friday and the word was that King would go to jail.
In Montgomery, Governor Wallace and Alabama’s white officials made their own plan. They knew SCLC’s bail funds were already low,
“they drafted a bill to raise the maximum appeal bond in misdemeanor cases from $300 to $2,500, applicable only in Birmingham. They added a resolution proclaiming that Birmingham ‘has been invaded by foreigners who would by force and violence attempt to overthrow laws which may not be to their liking.”Student organizers in Boston chartered a bus to take volunteers. With my language exams coming a week after Easter, I didn’t know what to do.
“Ah, Harold [DeWolf] is right and would know better than anyone else; Martin avoided those organizations. He was here to study and that’s what he did. Oh, he and Coretta went to an occasional concert, but he didn’t let anything distract him from what he was here for, including preparing for his German exam,” he chuckled.
“When he was here as a student,” he continued, “I knew I would be reading about him, but just not so soon. Within six months of receiving his doctorate he was leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
“You see, these students running around advocating for this and that,” he said, waving his arms. “They are good causes, most of them, but they are jeopardizing the good they might be able to do later because they’re not paying enough attention to their studies now.”
Then, looking directly at me he said, “I think you would do well to prepare for your exams instead of going on the bus. The time for you to do good will come later.”
Although I didn’t think his words were cheap advice to make me feel better, I didn’t know what good I might do later. “Later” I would be overseas and away from the revolution in civil rights going on here at home. My guilt wasn’t assuaged when I read Dr. King’s letter from jail in Birmingham, addressed to clergymen in the city who had issued a statement calling the non-violent demonstrations “unwise” and “untimely.” That night at the rally in Dallas his words energized me, but his words from Birmingham seemed like an indictment:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’"The certainty of my call to ministry eight years earlier was not in doubt, but where I was to exercise it was. Now, as I approached the end of years of waiting, I wondered if going to Taiwan was a way of avoiding the hard road ahead in my home country and a betrayal of the old man who had given me a ride, Marshall, my great grandfather and Dr. King. I never experienced any certainty in answer to those questions. From now on, the answers would never be certainties, only answers that “seemed best” among gray choices.