By Robin Postell
When I was a little girl growing up in Sparks, Georgia in the early 70s, my daddy had a reel-to-reel and he’d play all kinds of things; John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, recordings of my sister Tami and me singing “Yellow Submarine,” and I think it was Erroll Flynn reading “Ecclesiastes,” or maybe Richard Burton. Wish I could remember.
But there was one recording that I particularly loved. Daddy taught me how to thread the reel-to-reel with the thin tape and I felt quite grown up, and smart, doing this, and so, I did it often. And one that I remember, specially, was called, “I Have a Dream,” by someone named Martin Luther King, Jr.
At that age, I didn’t know about him. Didn’t know his history, other than piecing together things I heard my parents talk about, or catch snippets of in movies we would always go see (I got to see Rated “R” movies pretty much from birth). I didn’t even know if he was “white” or “black” because at that age I hadn’t figured in all that indoctrinated nonsense about race and such.
But this speech got me. The fashions of the 70s were the trappings of my childhood home, and the red, green and brown shag carpet I thought looked like pizza in our sunken living room was where I often stretched with earphones as big as my head to listen.
The crackling of the first part of the tape. The date. Murmurings, rustlings. I remember wondering what was going on, what did it look like inside that recording.
And it began.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely land of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. ‘I’his note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream”
And that roused my young mind. I wanted to know who this person was. I didn’t know people like this around me. Maybe my daddy. Oh, yea, daddy could rouse anybody with a speech, a rant, a mighty tale. So, yes, I knew this kind of passion existed, but to hear it, from the past, opened my mind’s eye to something that lasted forever. That speech was written in 1963, more than a decade earlier than when I was listening to it.
Slavery. Negros. I didn’t know about that yet. But what I did know is that I wanted them to be free. Because if I was free, and they weren’t, and he was one of them, then they should be free. They must! I remember imploring my parents to help me understand and they eventually bought me a coffee table book to supplement my exploration, and I saw black and white photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. making this speech, with the words written out.
I was younger than that speech, but I knew there was something older in me just like that speech. Something deep and burning that never would extinguish, because, well, it was me.
To me, it was God. That sense of rightness, or justice, I interpreted as God. I still do.
The last part of the speech is what caused me to play it over and over and it would bring tears to my eyes, even if I might not have understood it for what it meant. The tone of it struck that holy chord within that is rung by a higher hand.
When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a’ mighty, We are free at last.”“I have a Dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963
My father wrote about Civil Rights, but I didn’t know it at the time. It took a few years of watching from his knees to put it all together. I remember when a sheriff from a neighboring county kept calling our house threatening to kill my mother and sister and then he’d kill my daddy last. I remember crouching in our front living room with my sister peeking out the window the night some men had planned on burning a cross in our front yard.
They never came.
I remember daddy asking me to draw the silhouette of a man on a long sheet of wax paper so he could nail it to a pine tree in our back yard where he would have target practice with my mother, sister and me. Because the sheriff was mad. Bad mad. Daddy wrote a story about him killing somebody in handcuffs and the sheriff didn’t like it. I had no idea what he looked like. I remember drawing curly hair on his head. I think I might have thought he was black. I just didn’t know.
He was a mad white sheriff, I found out later.
And my daddy took me to a church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, I found out later, and we watched someone named “Daddy King” preach. I remember being small enough that I had to stare straight up when he came to our front pew and greeted us. I remember him holding my one hand in both of his big warm hands and smiling a smile I’ll never forget down into my upturned face.
Later I figured out whose daddy he was, and what church that was, and how it all connected to that one reel-to-reel.
As an adult, I added to my knowledge about my father’s career writing about topics difficult to bear during the 70s, and being taught about Civil Rights, of course, like any good American student eventually does, however edited.
I returned to that church in my 20s, and hosted Rwandan ambassador Josef Mutaboba to the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where we took him hand-in-hand (African custom) to visit Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tomb, with the eternal flame. I stood watching Mutaboba kneel there with an armful of flowers as an offering and cried softly for several minutes while members of the King family and our group watched respectfully.
I am still that little girl on that pizza-colored carpet.
And I still have his dream.