In the early 1960’s I studied civil disobedience as illustrated by Martin Luther, a German pastor, and Mahatma Ghandi. Luther’s 95 theses were written in 1517 and Ghandi led the protest against the national salt tax in 1930.. Being born in 1937, I was a young child during WWII, from 1941-1945. I learned more about that war and the Holocaust later.
German pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller were closely associated with protesting the Nazi imprisonment of Jewish men, women and children. These protesters, and others, were among my numerous heroes and models for social justice. Then I met Martin Luther King, Jr, in 1968 in Detroit. I was 31, King was 39. I was much in favor of peaceful, non-violent protests, both then and now. 1968 was also the year of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, subsequent arrests and trial; the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon.
As a member of the Board of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council, I was involved in inviting Dr. King to come and speak to a mostly all-white audience in that suburb of Detroit. I was in charge of arrangements at the local high school as it was the only venue large enough to accommodate the anticipated crowd. The atmosphere was charged and tense. Several police groups were present including the FBI, the Michigan State Police and the local police department who had jurisdiction. A heavily armed squad of police stayed quietly and secretly in the school library in case there was big trouble. Lieutenant Sylvester was in charge and he was my direct contact.
As the capacity crowd assembled, the Lieutenant and I watched people come into the auditorium where plainclothes policemen had positioned themselves strategically throughout the crowd. As King was introduced and began to speak, hecklers in the crowd attempted to interrupt him by shouting loud enough to draw attention to themselves and away from King, I asked Lt. Sylvester to get those people out or there could be serious trouble and he asked if I would sign the complaint. A brief debate ensued as I thought that was his job but I agreed just to get some action. With a few whispered words into his lapel microphone some of the plainclothes police escorted several protesters out of the auditorium.. King showed amazing patience and grace, and continued his speech concerning the moral imperative of equal rights for all people regardless of skin color.
What I did not know at the time was that the protesters were taken to the local police station and booked under a law related to disturbing the peace, a class 3 misdemeanor, and my name was on the charge. That led to my being labeled and attacked by several ultra-conservative, right-wing groups including the John Birch Society. Fast forward to today for a reference and know that Trump’s former Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, was the speaker at the John Birch Society’s National Council dinner shortly before joining the Trump administration. U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), widely reported to be one of Trump’s top advisors on foreign policy, is also tied to the John Birch Society. Others closely associated with Trump also have ties to the JBS.
My two days with King on March 13-14, 1968, was less than one month before April 4th when he was assassinated on the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis. Needless to say, as a progressive, liberal, social activist, working to integrate housing, education and employment, I was seen as the enemy, and I began receiving threats directed toward me and my family regarding our safety. Thus, we left Michigan the following year and I returned to graduate school for the second time, this time to pursue studies in Human Development in order to continue working with people, organizations and communities for positive change.
It would be another decade before I met Elie Wiesel who reaffirmed my belief that “to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.” He, and others like John Lewis, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai help propel us forward to keep engaged in finding better ways to live together by helping to eliminate hate, racism and injustice wherever we find it. My work has been primarily with children, adults, schools and communities through teaching and learning the benefits of mutual respect, personal responsibility, equity and diversity.
As we look ahead, learning from the past, let’s go forward with a renewed commitment to the values ingrained in these words from the Declaration of Independence, words that King used in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”