Sunday, January 14, 2007


My mother was one of four sisters. Glesnal was the eldest of the four and when I was young she was certainly the one to be given the widest berth. She would go and "cut herself a switch" at the drop of a hat and she would drop it herself. Any hint of misconduct in her presence was dealt with in a fast and firm fashion.
I can scarcely pass by a Crepe Myrtle tree or a Chinaberry without thinking of Glesnal.
It was precisely this quality that endeared Glesnal to me later in life.

When I was 5 or 6 years old I remember visiting Glesnal in Little Rock Arkansas. The year was 1962 or 1963 and tha topic of discussion was "nigras" causing a lot of trouble in Mississippi. The strange thing was that Glesnal, while seeming to be sympathetic to the "nigras" cause, and seemed to maintain that the whites were in the wrong, and had been in the wrong for sometime, was not ready to go cut herself a switch.
This was an attitude I was not accustomed to from her, and over the next ten years I would see this attitude displayed by most of my family and my race. And it would be longer than that before I really heard it defined.

Today we celebrate the birth of a truly great American, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
I do believe that any understanding of our country must be based on the fact that we fought a Great Civil War over civil rights, in which 600,000 Americans died, and that that war was still being fought 100 years later when I was just a boy. The case is easily made that it is still being fought. There are switches still to cut.

My parents and Glesnal were "Moderates"; that is to say that they were more concerned with keeping order than with Social change. I was too young to understand that then. But I was old enough to think that somewhere, someone ought to be cuttin' themself a switch.

Dr. king wrote a letter in a Birmingham jail that said this: "I have been gravely disappointed in the White moderate. I have almost reached the conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Council, or the Ku Klux klan, but the white moderate more devoted to "order" than justice.
I was in Detroit during the 67 & 68 riots; it was the first time I can recall hearing my parents say things that disturbed me... down deep. I guess they were scared. Dad Came home one day in August and said we were going back to Texas. We stopped in Chicago and I watched hippies turning cars over outside the Democratic National Convention.
They had cut themselves some switches.

As the years went by I saw more and more people who were willing to lay it down for a cause.There were some, like at Kent State, that laid it all the way down.
So did Dr. King.
It seems lately however that there are fewer and fewer of these people. We seem to be better informed about the issues; and the comedians these days can make a pretty good joke of the most serious of issues; but what has happened to the lost arts of getting upwind of tear gas and how to assume a fetal position when the billy-clubs come out?
Who wants to go cut themselves a switch?

Anyway, we know that I am better at telling you what happened to me than trying to write an Editorial...
Mainly I just want you to know how much I admired Dr. King and his dream. I used to have a copy of his "Dream" speech set to music... his voice and delivery is so lyrical; if you ever come across it it is worth a listen. Beautiful.
A very good series begins tonight on PBS called "Eyes on the Prize" chronicling the Civil Rights movement.


Old Lady said...

You hit the nail on the head.

Dave said...

I'm not sure if our relative social calm is a reflection of our unwillingness to take a beating or our unwillingness to deliver it, hopefully the latter, but there definitely are some issues about which we ought to have a word with ourselves. Great post!

red-dirt-girl said...

Amen, brother. Though I remember willow trees making right fine switches........but nothing like a plastic fly swatter with all those bug guts all over....yeck!

growing up in the south, this was always such an issue.....and yes, I knew people who grew up with their 'nannies' and 'maids' and 'loved' them like family. Just the 'them' really burned me...and of course all the jokes.

The saddest of these was that my very best friend in the world from 7th grade on is a black man. Neither his parents nor mine would ever allow us to meet outside of school. When he was the man of honor at my wedding, tongues still wagged about that 'Andrews girl.....'; we are still close and I'm proud to say he's done well - a professor at Yale and now U of South Carolina......he says you just become immune to discrimination as he experiences it daily in so many small ways.....and I wish I could say I myself was not guilty.......maybe I'll be cutting myself a switch today.

Barbara said...

A lot of people in the south were just like your parents, thinking if they ignored the problem it would just go away on its own. MLK knew it would take a lot more than just time.

Mother of Invention said...

Nice tribute to a great of the greatest. And I love his just commands attention. He used it with such conviction and I'm sure his whole purpose was to chisel his words right into our psyches for the betterment of all.
Here's to you, Dr. MLK on your day!

kissyface said...

i think this is some of your best writing, at least of what i've read so far. lovely. your sincerity and passion for the topic are clear. i like the one just above, too.

steve said...

Funny, I thought it was a poor post... but the subject really dwarfs whatever you say about it.
I liked Ol ladies' post.
I liked all your comments too.
They are building the memorial in Washington... long overdue and not yet fully funded, I believe.
i myself can hardly think of the man, his voice and his message without the short hairs on my neck coming up.

David said...

really good post, steve. i do wonder how far we've come since MLK. Some days I think pretty far - look who's the leading candidate for Democratic nominee. we were not anywhere near ready for that 40 years ago. other times, i think we are just as intolerant today as we have been for the last 200 years.

anyway, i'm a native detroiter - born there and lived there until i went off to college. i was home for the summer in 1968 and have vivid recollections of the riots and aftermath.

i was working downtown on a Mich. highway dept civil engineering crew, helping to lay out what became the Fisher freeway. we stayed home for the 1st couple of days but then went back to work. and i drove a small motorcycle back and forth - absolutely crazy looking back reflectively.

our crew consisted of:

* me - college boy home for the summer;

* Fred - the lead engineer from upstate Mich who referred to Detroit as the armpit of the state;

* a great 35 year old black guy (can't recall his name) who sold me my first real pool cue;

* Ervin - a black guy about my age (early 20's) who had recently come up from the South;

* Larry - a young white guy from the East side who was a college drop-out;

Ervin had this to say about the riots that first morning back:

"Shit, I'm so pissed off. I got drunk the night before and slept through all the looting!"

we could still hear sporadic gunfire from the freeway grade. i hurried back to the truck.

after work, Larry showed me what the rifle he had stowed in his trunk. it was the first time i had been so close to a gun.

it was a very scary time.