Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A 50th Anniversary, Both Public and Private, of MLK I Have A Dream Speech

            Wednesday is the much anticipated 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and for me it marks a related but more personal memory. That occasion in 1963 was the only time in my entire childhood my father spent a night away from home. As such it left an indelible impression.

My father was the district administrative assistant to Pittsburgh Congressman Bill Morehead. It was a demanding job yet he managed to be home by 5:30 for dinner every evening. My mother suffered from depression and while she enjoyed many happy times, the fragility of her mental health was ever-present. The hours my dad was at his office, though just a few minutes away, were especially hard for her.  She spent many afternoons with her fingers between the venetian blinds watching for him to walk down the street from the bus stop. He was careful to never be gone for long.

But 50 years ago today, he boarded a bus filled with civil rights and labor leaders for the long, hot ride from Pittsburgh so that he could be on the National Mall the next afternoon to hear King’s speech.  It meant spending that one night out of town, something he’d never done before or since.

My father was the least preachy man I’ve ever known. When he taught, it was by quiet example. The fact that he’d be away overnight – something routine for many of us in our jobs today – was anything but routine for him and our family.  For 50 years I’ve had this unusually intimate sense of how important King’s speech was, not because of the history books, commentators or monuments to him, but because of what seemed to my mom, sister and me like a monumental journey on my father’s part – an absence that signified his presence to something larger than ourselves, a minutely small sacrifice in the scheme of things that spoke volumes to us about the historic import of the day.

President Obama on Wednesday will stand where Dr King stood and is expected to assert that we’ve come a long way in 50 years but still have a long way to go   I hope he will echo the concern King spoke of for those on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

As an eight year old I learned a little something from my father that August day half a century ago about the importance of civil rights, equality and justice. But I also learned about the importance of devotion to work that matters, and doing such work with colleagues whose talent and character you admire. For a career that has offered me both of those privileges I am grateful to him – and to them.

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