There’s nothing like the passage of time to give the past, no matter how sad or scary or dangerous it was at the time, the golden glow of nostalgia. Maybe that’s why some of us prefer the past to the present; we know how it came out. We are freed of the tension of suspense.
Most comforting of all, we no longer have any responsibility for the outcome. There’s nothing we can do about it now. It’s too late. What’s done is done. It’s a relief in a way. Now we can just sit back and remember it, running it over and over again in our mind like a favorite movie.
So on this Martin Luther King’s Birthday, let me try to conjure up a thin slice of that past, the way you would carefully carve out a small section of ripe-red watermelon, salt, and serve:
The place is Pine Bluff, Ark., the time is July 1962 — right smack in the middle of the good old bad old days. You’re the new editorial writer in town, and so happy to back in the South after a few years bouncing around first in the Army and then at some damyankee Ivy League graduate school — where one so-called professor of Civil War history pronounced Cairo, Ill., like the one in Egypt — that, well, you just want to cry inside with happiness.
The tree roots pushing up the sidewalks in the older parts of town, the sleepy cemeteries, the chinaberries you can’t resist crushing with your foot as you meander. … That first summer in Pine Bluff, you’re not just home but aware that you are. Familiarity hasn’t had a chance to set in and breed contempt.
You’re not the only one new in town. A few graduate students your own age — company at last — have just arrived from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They’re out to organize young people, hold rallies at black churches, stage sit-ins at drive-ins and theaters, and generally do what outside agitators are supposed to do: call attention to injustice.
These kids take rejection in stride — like everything else. As if they knew even then that history would be on their side, and that all old Jim Crow needed was one good push and he would crumble. They might even live to see it if they didn’t get shot first.
I watched them being carted off to jail night after night from their demonstration in front of the old Sanger Theater downtown, and they’d be singing all the way. (“We shall overcome. … Whose side are you on? … We are black and white together…. Oh, Freedom. Oh, Freedom. Oh, Freedom over me. … “)
They’re led by one of the brighter, smarter and certainly bravest guys I’ve ever met — an organizer named Bill Hansen. We stay up half the night agreeing how stupid the color line is, and disagreeing about everything else: politics, economics, philosophy, religion, you name it.
Bill Hansen struck me as an orthodox Marxist, and what he made of me was his problem. Here was a green young editor who devoted a full page in the local paper saluting Robert E. Lee on his birthday and, just about every other day of the year, siding with the demonstrators.
It seemed clear to me that the protesters would prevail because they appealed to … conservative, religious Southern values. Like respect for law and the courts, even the Warren Court. Like the redemptive power of unearned suffering and respect for biblical imperatives (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”).
But young organizers like Bill Hansen were already criticizing Martin Luther King Jr. for being too conservative. De Lawd, they would call him in derision. It was one thing to use black churches for shelter, support and a place to recruit. But this preacher seemed to believe what he was preaching. How naive.
Martin Luther King might have been gentle as a dove, but he was cunning as the serpent — just the combination Christians had been told to be. He understood he had an ally in the heart of his adversary, and would never stop appealing to it. In the end he would do something greater than prevail over his enemies; he would turn them into friends.
You can’t stop a man, or a cause, like that. In the end he would win over the South because he was so much a Southerner himself.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.