by Rev Dr Doe West
When I was just a young teen, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King helped shape my whole life by his “I have a dream” speech (August, 1963), when he said: “Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
President Kennedy was killed three months after this speech (November, 1963). The tiny deep woods townlet where I was raised had only one African American family in residence. I had had little awareness of the issues facing Black Americans until tragedy brought so many of us together. As I watched the news in the weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination, I became more aware of all the injustices in America–especially for Black Americans, whose victimization President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were addressing in new ways with new views of justice.
Events became worse. JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, declared his presidential candidacy in March 1968. Reverend Dr King was killed in March 1968. Robert Kennedy was killed in June 1968. Mourning for both ran deep within the social justice movement. It was an anchor point for many who sought to climb to higher ground, myself among them. I had to work for years after graduating that June of 1968 due to family needs. I worked three jobs plus any extra I could find. But every time I could find a bit of time for myself, I jumped a train to NYC and went to the Village or near Columbia University where I could find people who shared not only my grief but my determination to help us all rise together.
During my social justice journey, I undertook training and work in Disability Rights. I straddled the chasm between citizen advocate and professional advocate. Years later, I found myself serving as the first Commissioner of Handicapped Affairs (PC language of the day) and a member of Women in Politics in Massachusetts and then Disability Coordinator for the first ever national Presidential Debate oriented to the Gender Gap. All of the candidates came. I have photos with Walter Mondale, John Glenn, Gary Hart, and Rev Jesse Jackson. I asked my question when called upon and stood for the photos and spoke with reporters, as did all involved.
It was those moments with Reverend Jackson I bring forward today as it relates to Rev Dr King, and as I sit and reflect on all those events, decades later, as Rev Dr West. When I talked with Reverend Jackson, there were so many around us.
So much noise and focus on the now and the tomorrow we hoped for and were working toward. But I said to him, ‘May I just reflect for a moment on my linkage to your life, Reverend Jackson, through that of Reverend King?” And in that moment, I felt connected to him, in a cone of sacred protection, a place of unity. I continued, “You were there with him. At that time of life. At the moment of his death. …” I went silent. “Yes,” he said, and spoke of his love for the man and his message, and their work… His eyes encouraged me to continue.
I said “It made me think of Luke 24:32… “ He spoke along with me the words we both knew by heart – “And they said to one another, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the way and while He opened to us the Scriptures?” We stood in unity – of the lives, of the teachings, of mourning, of rejoicing, of determination, of exhaustion, of renewal – of the call to go forward in this work. Then someone took his arm and turned him away. But it did not matter where his steps took him or me next. We were in unity. We remain so.
I remain in unity with all of them… and everyone and everything and all of it that is the tapestry of social justice. And I look forward to all the next threads and weavings with you all on this next pathway together.
There are days that impact a society / a culture that stand as moments in time of such significance that its impact goes forward …. and the more intimate the relationship we have with those moments, the deeper the impact.
I remember the day Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. April 4th, 1968. I had become social justice aware and dedicated to civil rights for a number of years already onceJohn F Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963. And I later was involved as a volunteer in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign when he announced his candidacy on March 16, 1968.
In biological age, I was a teen but my own life situation was of an independent teen due to my family situation. College was still a dream for a few more years as I helped my family. But NYC did not care about any of that when I traveled there I was part of a social movement.
We shared his dream and his work. It was a time of serious social unrest and layers of fear and anger driving society – but the work done over those next years, and to this very year, remain not just legacy but life work for so many. I had these photos in my scrap book and offices ever since.
Allow MLK’s words to impact you today: