Saturday, January 22, 2011

Precious Memories - Taiwan and Memphis

[This is the fourth and final article on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s presence in my life over the years. I would like to hear how he has been present in your life, before and after his death. The quotes from Dr. King below may all be found in context here.]

On April 2, 1968, four of us boarded a small train on a narrow-gauge railroad in Chai-yi in south central Taiwan. Our destination was what had once been an old Japanese resort at Ali-shan high in the ridge of mountains that takes up much of the land space on the island. On April 5th, after the luxuriating isolation with the cherry blossoms in full bloom providing needed physical and mental distance from realities in Taipei, we boarded the small train for the trip back.

We sat on hard wood benches for the six hour trip down through three climate zones to reach Chia-yi. Somewhere near the halfway point there were two sets of tracks where the train coming up could pass the one coming down. When the two trains stopped, the morning newspapers that came up were distributed on the train going down. I could manage speaking Chinese but my reading skills were limited. The only papers on the train were in Chinese, so I didn’t try to buy one.

As people around me opened their papers to read, I saw that the front page consisted of one huge Chinese character I recognized as “wang,” the character for “king.” I wondered why the front page of a major newspaper would be covered with this character. Was there some important news about a king somewhere? My curiosity overcame my embarrassment at having to admit that I couldn’t understand the headline.

“Please sir,” I said in Chinese to a man sitting in front of me beside his wife and two children, “I do not understand the headline. Did a ‘king’ die?”

He turned around and looked at me. “It is your country’s Dr. King. He has been assassinated,” the man said.

Then, he opened the inside of the paper and pointed to two articles on page two. “Can you read?” he asked politely.

I nodded my head. I could read the headlines well enough to know that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis and that there were race riots all over the country. The second article was about an elementary school class somewhere that cheered when the teacher told them the news. The man shook his head as if he found the stories as hard to believe as I had in deciphering the characters.

I shared the news with the others, two of whom were friends with roots in Tennessee. We wept and fell into silence. What could we say? The past few carefree days were eclipsed and a dark shadow fell across the days ahead.

In my mind, as I had often done through the years, I began a one-sided conversation with Dr. King:

Martin, I remember when you said that it was past time for desegregation, and I said “You’re right, but you’ve got to give us more time to get ready.” You were right, and you pulled me along.

I remember when you started the Poor People’s Campaign and I whispered to you that important as that was for people of all races, I worried that it would dilute the focus of the civil rights movement. You reminded me that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You were right again. And you pulled me along.

Just a year ago, on that day at Riverside Church in New York City when you announced your opposition to the Vietnam War, I whispered again, “Martin, this is going to hurt all you have done for civil rights. Let other’s carry this fight.” And you responded at how sad these words made you: “… such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.” And of course you were right.

You’d think I would learn, but just three weeks ago when you decided to get involved in the sanitation workers strike, I wondered if your intervention on behalf of labor in Memphis wouldn’t limit your influence. I already guessed what you would say, and as you have been all along, you were right.
Self-reproach, I reminded myself, is good if it results in changed behavior; otherwise it just drags down the soul. I remembered with gratitude how Dr. King had changed my life, and what a difference he had made in my work in Taiwan. His 1963 words from Birmingham still echoed in my conscience: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” as did his words six months earlier in 1967 when he confronted those who were ready to resort to violent acts to achieve justice: “We must reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence.” Those two admonitions had become bedrock for me in Taiwan. But that’s another story.

Dr. King has been gone forty-three years and it is impossible to know what he would say about the issues we face today. But his presence is still with us. We are engaged in wars that I believe cannot be justified. The first step in seventy years to make our health care system more just and effective is assailed as “job killing”. The atmosphere of political discussion is as hate-focused as it was on Dr. King in his day. His words from jail in Birmingham in 1963 seem as relevant for our generation as his:
“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
I believe we are a better people because of Dr. King. Because of him, a lot of people stood up. That’s why, in the words of J. B. F. Wright’s old gospel song
As I travel on life's pathway
Know not what the years may hold
As I ponder, hope grows fonder
Precious mem'ries flood my soul.
- Milo


dan said...

This Alisan train memory is very poignant to this expat living in South Taiwan at the foot of the mountain range that houses Ali Mountain (''-san'' in Ali-san, sometimes spelled Alishan, is the Japanese word for mountain, a term left over from the 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan by Imperial Japan) ..and especioally the dramatic way in which you first heard of the news on a train in a foreign land where you could not read the languge, but knew a hew characters like WANG for king, and then when the man next to you explained! Wow, you must have been complete taken aback! Powerful story you wrote down above:

“Please sir,” I said in Chinese to a man sitting in front of me beside his wife and two children, “I do not understand the headline. Did a ‘king’ die?”

He turned around and looked at me. “It is your country’s Dr. King. He has been assassinated,” the man said.

The two biggest assassination events in my short life, JFK and MLK, and so sad, America, America, what has become of thee?


And maybe more ruinous chapters to come....... fingers crossed....

because we all know post-Giffords shooting in Arizona, there will be some nuts gunning for you know who. So sad! Please NO!

Claire DeLand said...

I remember so well where I was at "the moment" this horrific news came! I was between jobs and working part-time at Ernst and Ernst, (working on the Coca-Cola Company's tax return, actually), and we had a long night ahead of us.

We became aware of "something" going on outside and of a tremendous increase in security INSIDE, and while we were looking out of a window on an upper story of the building, which was on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, overlooking the park at Georgia State University, a crowd was gathering below us on the sidewalk.

Armed security personnel entered the office and told us that Dr. King had been assassinated in Memphis, and that we were to assemble in the reception area, and that we would be going home as quickly as possible.

We were divided into groups - - - those who had personal vehicles in the garage under the building and those who were using public transportation. For some reason, I had chosen to drive to work that day instead of riding the bus.

We were escorted out - one at a time - between two uniformed and HEAVILY armed security guards and met at the ground floor by Atlanta Police Officers who stood with guns drawn and who accompanied each of us down to the garage and to our cars and then watched as we exited the building.

I remember a feeling of relief to be out on the streets of the city I loved and away from their guns. It never EVER occurred to me that I couldn't walk on the streets of my HOME town safely or that I could not stop my car and get out and walk up to some of the folks who were at the park weeping openly and hug them and tell them of my own sorrow. I was more afraid of the police!!!

I grew up in Atlanta, and I attended Grady High School and was proud to be at one of the "token" schools when integration began. I was friends with our two black students, and I was

proud of that.
My grandparents were products of a different age and they were horribly and embarrassingly racist. My mother's generation was "less so" but still rigidly prejudiced.

My generation is less so, thank goodness, even in the "old south" that remains and is evident at times. We taught our daughter that what mattered was the "content of a man's character" and not the "color of a man's skin" that determined who who they were, and we never allowed her to use even the most minor derogatory language when referring to those who "look different".

In the days immediately following Dr. King's death, life in Atlanta changed a lot. The eyes of the world were on the city because of the influence here of the Kings . . . I worshiped at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and I prayed very hard for the City of Atlanta to really "be" the "City that's too busy to hate" as we were described by the late Mayor Hartsfield in the 1950s.

I remember when Marcus Chenault killed Martin's mother (Alberta King was at the organ on a Sunday morning (June 30th 1974 maybe?) playing "The Lord's Prayer") and a Deacon of the Ebenezer Baptist Church . . . I couldn't believe I was hearing and seeing what I was hearing and seeing.

I've always had a hard time dealing with injustice and appreciated especially Martin's comment about "injustice anywhere" being a threat to "justice everywhere". I continue to this time to have serious difficulty accepting the presence of injustice in the world. Dr. King gave me courage.

I have a lot of memories about Dr. King and about life in Atlanta in those days and about my own "evolution" as both a Christian and a person, and they're inextricably linked with the influence of Dr. King.

Great article, Mike . . . I'm delighted to find your blog!

"Precious memories - how they linger - - - how they ever flood my soul. In the stillness of the midnight, precious sacred scenes unfold."

Milo Thornberry said...

I'm glad you found the blog too, Claire. Great piece! Thank you!

Why do I remember your working at Ernst and Ernst?