I have such an appreciation for Inauguration Day. We Americans like to fight, we lean toward violence, we entertain all kinds of opinions in the public square, we make a mess of things and then pick ourselves up and move on. But on this day, we manage to come together and swear in a president. True, he has to ride in a bullet-proof car and stand behind bullet-proof glass in case some jack-ass tries to shoot him, but we get through it.
Today happens to fall on Martin Luther King Day as well (along with my father's birthday—he would have been 93), so we mark two great days at once. Just in case MLK doesn't get fair coverage today, I am resurrecting my newspaper column from a few years ago. I think it's generally bad form to quote one's self, but I'm willing to commit bad form in order to make my point one more time. Here goes:
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My deceased father’s birthday is this week, as well, and on some years, it coincides with the day commemorating the civil rights leader. In my father’s mind, however, those days felt more like intentional collisions than coincidental overlapping. Being a product of the segregated South and one who wanted to believe the old FBI reports on King’s character and associations, my father did not hail King as a hero at the family dinner table.
My father’s birthday was always a simple occasion and punctuated with dessert. Every Saturday for all the years I can remember, my mother made a cake that would carry us through the following week. On the week of Daddy’s birthday, she would make the German chocolate cake variety because he just loved the stuff, and she served it with a heaping mound of butter pecan ice cream.
We were not allowed to have pizza because of the role the Italians played in World War II, but we were allowed to have German chocolate cake despite the Third Reich.
When I got older and was capable of handling the mixer, I would often be the one to make the cake on Saturday, and I liked working with the German chocolate mix. The oozing coconut filling was easier to work with than a full bowl of frosting, and licking the spoon was always a pleasure. I’m not sure if Germans were actually responsible for coming up with this cake, but it’s a good one.
In college, I took a speech class that required me to spend time in the library listening to famous speeches. I sat at the headphone station in the audio room and reviewed speeches I had heard about but had never listened to all the way through. I studied recordings of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and I listened to Martin Luther King’s speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
When I heard King’s words for the first time, my eyes welled up, and I proceeded to play it over and over again. What was it I was supposed to reject in that speech?
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Was that the part that was bad?
Or maybe it was this: “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I bet this was it, the evil that made this man despised at my father’s dinner table: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was not a perfect man, but it wasn’t his human flaws that made him such a threat. It wasn’t the rumors of his ties with the Communist party or philandering that made him a target for assassination. It was his vision of a better world and his attempts to peacefully lead us there.
It was that he wanted what my father had – the same rights and the same respect and the same opportunities for his children. I don’t believe I had the capacity to articulate this when I was younger and sitting at my father’s table with my fork in the German chocolate cake, the crumbs mixing with the butter pecan, but what I wanted to tell my father on his birthday and on all days was that he didn’t have to give up what he had in order for King and others to share in it, too.
There are plenty of rights to go around. There is more than enough respect and opportunity for us all to sit together and lick the spoon and share in the cake.