I was nine years old when the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination blasted out of our little black and white TV screen in Southeast Idaho. The news did something I had never really seen before – it made my father stop working and watch television.
As Walter Cronkite reported the details of that April day in Memphis, my father pulled me onto his lap and held me there for a long time in a deep stillness.
“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times,” historian David McCullough said. “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
Writing this column in the time between the close of the Martin Luther King holiday and the start of Black History Month has me thinking of my father and that moment in our history. I think of how he worked to make sure I understood the perilous times that stormed outside in the America of my childhood.
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These were realities that I was often sheltered from growing up the youngest of a brood in a western railroad town. But they were realities he knew all too well as a black man raised in the segregated South.
At this point in the 21st century, we are commemorating major anniversaries of events in the civil rights movement.
The powerful movie Selma was released in time for the 50th anniversary of the famous march for voting rights led by Dr. King and centered in that Alabama town. The film depicts the brutal and bloody resistance met by the marchers from Selma.
Just last May, Cheryl Brown Henderson was on the South Puget Sound Community College campus as part of a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated the nation’s schools.
Two weeks ago, Ernest Green graced the same stage at the college. He is one of the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Central High School in Arkansas on the force of the Brown decision.
“It was always about limits,” Green said. “Limits imposed on where you could go, what you could learn, who could teach you … . It was a society of a lot of ‘No’s.’ ”
At age 16, Ernest Green was the oldest of the nine students who faced such violent, daily harassment, that the 101st Airborne had to come to protect them. Ruby Bridges, who had to attend her New Orleans elementary school escorted by U.S. Marshals, was only 6.
Often, at the leading edge of the most dangerous moments of the civil rights movement stood a child. Like the marchers from Selma, they met the hate awaiting them with a belief in their rights as Americans and their bodies.
My father was born into that world of limits, that society of No’s, but he and my mother raised their family in a place with a few more Yes’s. They sent all five of us to schools integrated in ways my father never experienced. Believe me, it was not integration perfected, but no hate-filled crowds barred our way to our classrooms.
Our experience wasn’t our father’s experience and wasn’t the experience of black children our ages in huge swaths of the United States. And the young reverend who had inspired and led so much of the coming change lay dead in Memphis.
So in that moment, I think, my father did not so much hold me in his lap, as hold on to me.
Then he got up … and went back to work.
I had asked my father that day if Martin Luther King was a good guy. He leaned in close and said, “He was a really good guy.” So I wasn’t surprised when a golden bust of Dr. King appeared in our home sometime afterward and sat prominently for years on our mantelpiece, right next to my mom’s ebony Virgin Mary.
My father served as the president of the Pocatello NAACP for some two decades, and for many of those years he organized banquets to honor Dr. King’s birthday, just like the one attended by Ernest Green at the community college.
My father dedicated himself to the work of fair housing. He registered voters until the cows came home and would spend election days driving anyone who needed a ride to the polls.
So this February, I will remember the people and events that shaped African-American history. But I’ll pay special tribute to my guide through perilous times: John William Purce.
Because, like Dr. King, he was a really good guy.