I read in yesterday's NY Times obit for Rev. Sloane Coffin Jr. that he was arrested three times during the great civil rights doings in the south in the early '60s. More to commend a commendable man. Especially when you recall Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," where, almost grieving, he took to task local white clergy for criticising him and his brethren for rocking the boat too hard.
(In Vanity Fair just now, King's old lawyer recounts how Nelson Rockefeller personally went bail for King and the others, and for a lot of money. Would such a Republican exist these days?)
I've been listening to a cassette tape of King reading that jail letter, in his fatigued, regretful, rolling voice. I bought the tape a couple weeks ago at the original Ebenezer Baptist Church; I was in Atlanta for the first time. The big new version of church rises across the street. I didn't go in. Next door to the old church sit the crypts of Martin and Coretta -- a kind of shock to see hers, after being so stirred by the funeral service on TV, with Bush stuck there in his chair. ("I don't think he's personally racist," says a UK friend of mine. Who cares what he is personally? I said)
Then I crossed the street to the Martin Luther King Center. I know vaguely there's been controversy about the Center and the King progeny. I know Martin Luther King was skirt chaser. But wandering the exhibits, staring up at the old TV footage of the boycotts, of the vicious stupid little mobs of white boy and men, at the bleeding black and white stoic heads courageous at bus doors and lunch counters -- and hearing King's firm deep extraordinary voice, I was overwhelmed. I wept. My girlfriend, who is Russian and fled Brezhnev, couldn't quite understand.
I came here from South Africa when I was a kid. I remember watching the March on Washington, and King's speech, on TV. King and the movement and the era represent one of the noblest expressions of what America is all about, I told my girlfriend. (I think I used that kind of language.) And when you think what America has come to now, it makes you hang your head in shame and despair. Where is there anyone these days with the vision and courage and humanity of Martin Luther King? The one white man who might maybe touch those chords seems to enjoy cracking jokes with the Bushes and triangulating his wife's chances for the presidency.
Anyway, on that note we went around the corner and had a terrific lunch of barbeque, Texas style. The place is called Rolling Bones, in case you're interested.