Monday, March 14, 2016

Mondays With Martin: Heroes and Fame

I met a hero at the memorial today, and I was reminded a bit about the costs of fame. Actually, this is two stories about separate encounters, but they both have something to do with legacies and the weight of histories.

First I met a family of four -- parents and two young-adult children -- having a spring-in-DC vacation. When I welcomed them the mom told me that she had gone to school with Dr. King's kids in Atlanta in the mid-60s at Spring Street Elementary School. The family I met at the memorial is white, and I was surprised to hear that the mom had gone to school with King's children. But Spring Street was the first public school in Atlanta to be desegregated, and King's kids, along with those of King's close friend and colleague in the Movement, Ralph David Abernathy, attended.

The mom told me that her classes had assigned seats by alphabetical order, so she wound up sitting next to Dexter and Bernice. I asked her what her name was, and she said, "my maiden name is King, and my first name is Carol, so I sat between them often."

She told me about what she called a precursor to "bring-your-dad-to-school day," when Dr. King came to school. "The other dads said a few words in their children's classroom, and we all wondered why Dexter and Bernice's dad got to speak to the entire school in the auditorium."

We chuckled at that memory, and speculated about what it would be like to have been a typical dad with a typical job and get to try to follow Dr. King, or what it would be like to introduce your dad after your classmate has stood up and said, "this is my dad; he is the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1963, he has received at least 50 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world ... here's my dad."

On the other hand, she noted, "we were just kids; we didn't know anything about who he was beyond being our friends' father." That changed when their friends' father was assassinated, school was closed, and the city of Atlanta shut down.

As she and her family left the memorial to her elementary classmates' dad, I was left pondering the steep price fame often exacts from the children of the famous. Dr. King's children have struggled with that burden for years as they've come to different positions about protecting his legacy and the family's rights to it. These days, more than a little white girl sits between Dexter and Bernice (and their older brother, Martin) as they feud in court over the rights to Dr. King's Nobel Prize, his Bible, and other pieces of property, and over broader rights to control his legacy.

Fame, for the King children, seems a sad inheritance and one they have carried with, often less than heroic aspect.

Which makes a heroic life stand out all the more in contrast.

We had a hero visit the memorial this morning, though there was no fanfare nor announcement when an elderly African-American gentleman led a group of about 15 black teenagers onto the plaza. He gathered them in a loose circle off to one side of the monumental relief of Dr. King, and asked, "how many of you have ever heard of Claudette Colvin?"

My ears perked up immediately because I knew that Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in March, 1955. Nine months later a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for the same "crime."

Colvin, the gentleman explained, didn't quite fit the image that black leaders in Montgomery had in mind as they considered fighting the city over discrimination in bus service. She was only 15, she had very dark skin and nappy hair, and she was not afraid to speak out.

He was clearly trying to get these contemporary teenagers to see themselves in the 15-year-old Colvin. Perhaps they did. It was hard to tell just how engaged they were with her story.

But then he told them his own story.

When he was 15 years old he lived in Lynchburg, Va. It was 1962. Barely 24 months since the height of Massive Resistance, the response of Virginia's white establishment to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that struck down separate but equal public schools. Virginia shuttered schools in many districts rather than comply with Brown, and by the early 60s only a few districts were slowly desegregating.

"Slowly" was the point. Lynchburg's school board had just proposed a plan that would integrate one class at a time over the course of 12 more years before the entire system would be desegregated a full 20 years after Brown. But by 1961, a few dozen teenagers in Lynchburg had applied to transfer from all black schools to previously all white schools.

By the time the system acquiesced, it was January, 1962, and only two students were still willing (and had their parents' backing) to make the move.

Thus Owen Cardwell, Jr., became one of two students to desegregate Lynchburg's high schools.
Today he works with kids who were about the same age he was then, encouraging them to stand up for what is right, to speak out against what is wrong, and to understand that, even though they are young, they have the power to change the world and the responsibility, as well.

I don't imagine many people know of him. Judging from my own web searches this afternoon, more folks know about Claudette Colvin, and that's likely a pretty small circle. There's little by way of fame attached to his name, but a great deal by way of heroism.

(When he had finished speaking with the kids and invited them to walk around looking at other aspects of the memorial, I went over and thanked him for his work and witness. I asked his name, but I am the world's worst at remembering names, so I'm relying on the accuracy of the article linked above and a couple of others I found today to have correctly identified him.)