Sometimes it’s just a tiny thing that makes a person pivotal in your history.
Once upon a time in grade school, I had a teacher that took some kids aside to teach them reading: the kids who needed extra help and the ones who were ahead of the class and needed other material.
I don’t remember how this conversation started but it strikes me as something she just needed to say. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and – we were just kids. We had already heard the most feel-good outlines of what the day, and Martin Luther King, and civil rights were about, and that was it.
She told a different version of that story.
She said she had marched with Dr. King. She was a pear-shaped white woman with straight salt-and-pepper hair. She said she was so afraid before each march, that the police would attack or arrest them, or put dogs or fire hoses on them, that she would be sick some store or restaurant bathroom. And then she would wash up and go out and march.
It was a strange story to hear. First of all, I had no idea there were white people that marched with Dr. King. I had no idea that there were dogs or firehoses or police brutality, before that. The story didn’t make sense if I mixed it with what I already knew. What I had understood was, “if you are sick or afraid, someone takes care of you.” and “Justice is self-evident and top-down and righteous and easy.”
Those things were clearly not true, or at least not true for everyone! It is funny to recognize looking back to see how weird and segregated the child’s version of the MLK story is. “The bad white people (what did the other white people do?) wouldn’t give the black people their rights, so all the black people marched around and had rallies and then they (who? President Kennedy?) gave the rights to them.” I was a fairly clever kid who didn’t like a story with holes in it. She gave me some new facts instead, that fit much better:
“You don’t necessarily know who “Us” is. You don’t necessarily know who “Them” is.”
“Some things are difficult and scary and you do them because they are right.”
“Getting arrested and beaten on is not as bad as injustice.”
A huge part of my religious path right now is ancestor veneration. I can’t and sometimes feel like I am not supposed to be religious on a very large scale. I have trouble honoring, someone like (for example) Dr. King, unless I went to a ceremony in my city led by someone else. I can’t pray for people I don’t know.
But this woman: I can’t remember her name, and I don’t even know if she is still living, but I hold those truths right next to my heart, and I try to honor her in action for contributing to the person I am.