Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Our Next Holiday

It wasn't until 1983 that Congress passed a bill to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. with a Federal holiday.  The bill was vociferously opposed by many Senators and Representatives, most notably and loudly by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.  President Ronald Reagan had threatened to veto the bill.  He relented when the numbers approving passage would override his veto.  He signed to bill into law.

Many states did not want to have another holiday in general and some of them did not want to honor King specifically.  Various names were developed to avoid calling the holiday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has been dead for more years than he lived on earth.

While I was too young to care much about the landmark 1954 civil rights case of Brown v. Board of Education I was an eager participant in marches promoting the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

I had quite an awakening when I realized how segregated my life had been.  I grew up in a mountain town with a very small black population.  I never attended school with a black person until I went to college.  I assumed that the separation of people by race was everyone's preference.

My parents were basically good people, but they resented King, his marches, and the Freedom Riders.  To them, northern agitators were stirring up problems in the south.  After all, "our negroes" were quite happy with the way things were and would be uncomfortable going to school with whites.  Despite the feelings of my parents, at an early age I was mesmerized by the speeches of Martin Luther King.  I admired what he said and his words gave me more understanding of racial problems than any other single thing.  Perhaps my sharpest and most painful memory was the sight of young children attacked by dogs and fierce flow from water hoses.  When I watched it crying, my parents were not pleased and sent me to my room.

I have since read the three volumes of Taylor Branch's histories about the civil rights movement.  I can highly recommend these books although they are very lengthy and in great detail.  I can assure you that whether you lived through the movement, or read about it in school, these books will shed light on how things were and how they moved forward.

 Parting the Waters chronicles the happenings between 1954 and 1963, and earned Branch the Pulitzer Prize for history.

 Pillar of Fire covers the years 1963-1965.

 At Canaan's Edge, the final book in the trilogy covers America between 1965 and 1968.

It will take you quite a while to read the entire trilogy, but it will definitely be time well spent.  I am fascinated by the history of blacks in the south.  [NOTE:  I do not use the phrase "African-American."  Most blacks are no more African than I am Irish.  In general, we do not refer to people based on the home of their long-dead ancestors.  I really hate it when I hear people talk about an African-American in the UK, a person who has never even visited the United States!)   I especially love reading about the local Civil Rights Movement and our area's involvement in the Civil War.

Here in the mountains, there was little slavery and loyalties were divided house by house (and often within the same house) during the Civil War.  The women left behind were more often threatened by the scalawags who remained than by the Union Army.  There were slaves in western North Carolina, generally brought to the area to serve the wealthy plantation owners who came to the mountains for a respite from the hot summers in South Carolina and Georgia.  With a few exceptions, slaves who might have died here were buried in separate, often unmarked graves.  There were some cemeteries that allotted a portion to be used for blacks, but the graves were usually not marked by name.  One of our local cemeteries contains a large area of graves marked by stones with no engraving at all.  These stones mark the graves of the black slaves buried there.

 This section of the cemetery is marked by a large stone with the following plaque:

If you wish to honor Dr. King, then make next Monday a day of doing service.  And if you want a more comprehensive understanding of the Civil Rights Movement in America, start reading Branch's books.


Taradharma said...

I'm reading a fascinating book recently published called, "Slave in the White House." This enslaved man, Paul Jennings, was enslaved by President Monroe and Dolly, and because he was educated and smart, he wrote the first every White House Memoir. I highly recommend the book.

Have you been to the Civil Rights museum in Greensboro? A must.

Janet, The Queen of Seaford said...

Very insightful. Having moved to South Carolina I am viewing attitudes that are so foreign to me. I thought I was in the South in Virginia....not by a long shot. Your books sound like they will be a great read. I heard the author of 'Slave in the White House' on Colbert last week. Also an interesting book.

Wayfarin' Stranger said...

Good piece. As a child in eastern Kentucky, I too had very limited exposure to people of any another race until attending high school in Ohio. I quickly learned that it was all much more complicated than I had imagined, and not always what I had been taught. It was a great thrill to watch a black man take the oath of office for President. We have come far as a nation; may we do no less in the next 50 years.

Ms. A said...

I'm only recently finding out there is so much I don't know, about my ancestors. (and have nobody left to verify what I've found) I guess there were things that just didn't get discussed with the generations that came along later.

George said...

I remember hearing many of Martin Luther King's speeches as he gave them. I don't think I've ever heard a more mesmerizing speaker. Service to others is the ideal way to remember him.

troutbirder said...

Very well said, Carolyn. Having, now, three black grandchildren and one white, it will be interesting to see how this all goes. I'm not sure how Arizona will be a factor for each one. One biological (Fargo) and Ethiopia, Rwanda and Haiti... :)

Anonymous said...

I was mesmerized by the civil rights movement in the early 60s. I had several older cousins who were activists in the movement. I was too young to participate, but I loved the call for equality. It was such a stirring message, it still rings true.

KGMom said...

I am interested in your observations about nomenclature--it is always challenging to know what term is most correct when referring to people of color in the U.S.
It was quite jarring, on our recent trip to South Africa, to hear our guide keep referring to "coloreds". Of course, in S. Africa colored designates people of mixed background, where black refers to people with true African background.

NCmountainwoman said...

Thanks for your comments.

Tara - I will definitely look for the book. Yes, I have been to the museum in Greensboro. Definitely a must.

Janet - SC is indeed different from Virginia. And the various sections of the state are different from one another. I'm sure you will be glad to see the primary end on Tuesday.

Wayfarin' - I totally agree.

Ms A - The stories about my ancestors has been passed down through the family. Especially noted were the ones who lost their lives or relatives during the Civil War.

George - Yes, I hope we can all do some small service in his honor.

Troutbirder - What a blessing to have those grandchildren. I hope all goes well for them in Arizona.

Donna - Interesting take on Africa. I think my choice of black came about when I heard a news anchor discuss some problems with African-Americans in London. The people in question were definitely not American.

Busy Bee Suz said...

This is a great post, and as always, you give clear, concise information!!! The books do sound fascinating. I loathe the entire portion of our history concerning slavery and racism, it is so unjust!