King for a day in the New South

“My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away. Nobody ever does, of course, because a person doesn’t begin to exist without parents and an environment and legendary tales told about ancestors and dark dusty vines growing over outhouses where remarkable insects might always drop out of hidden crevices.”

That’s the opening paragraph of one of the great Australian novels by George Johnston. He was writing about his brother Jack (and Australia during the Depression); in fact, he dedicated the book to him. I had a brother Jack, too, and I was thinking about him this week.

I think about him a lot because he died too young at the age of 50 twenty years ago. But he comes to mind every year at this time – Martin Luther King Day commemorated in the US on the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s birthday, January 15.

Like Jack Meredith in Johnston’s novel, my brother Jack looked after his younger sibling, and if anybody bullied me, he stopped it immediately, usually with a right cross (Jack was one of the toughest guys in our neighbourhood). In the novel, Jack Meredith played truant from school in suburban Melbourne to confront a gang of bullies who had thrown a brick through the window of a shop where his girlfriend worked.

Jack told the gang leader, the bully Dud Bennett, who was six years older than him, there was nothing smart about chucking a brick, adding: “Have you and your gang of apes ever tried to chuck a punch?”

Johnston goes on: “Bennett grinned again and spat on his hands and they squared off at each other, but Bennett never landed that punch. Jack landed three. The first bloodied the hod-carrier’s nose, the second blackened his left eye, and the third, a straight left, knocked him out.”

It reminded me of what my brother Jack did to two muggers, who attacked him during Philadelphia’s famous Mummer’s Parade: one had a broken jaw and the other a broken nose before they ran away. They were African-American muggers, and Jack lived in our all-white neighbourhood until he joined the Marines, so he wasn’t particularly big on civil rights.

Or so I thought, until January 15, 1969, the first unofficial observation of Dr King’s birthday after his assassination in April, 1968, when my good friend, James McCausland, and I were down from New York for the weekend, having a beer with Jack at the Irish Catholic pub across the street from our home in West Philly. (I was teaching in Harlem at the time.)

The patrons sitting on the other side of the bar were watching the news broadcasts marking the commemorations for Dr King, with comments like: “Martin Luther Coon,” and then laughing uproariously. I was getting angrier and angrier and my brother noticed, and said quietly to me and James: “Get ready to walk out, with your backs to the door.”

Jack then lifted his glass to the ten or so regulars across the bar, and said: “I’d like to propose a toast to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior.” The three of us downed our glasses and walked slowly, backwards, to the door. No one on the other side of the bar moved.

I told that story at Jack’s funeral, at a military cemetery in Delaware. I was never prouder of my brother Jack than that moment in 1969. If only I could have told Dr King the tale. I did actually meet the civil rights leader four years earlier (47 years ago tomorrow) at Villanova University when he addressed a human rights forum at a packed Field House of 4000 people, soon after he had received the Nobel Prize. I got to shake his hand as I was one of the editors of the university newspaper, The Villanovan. Featured at the top of this blog is a tear-out from the front page, previewing the speech. And yes, we called him “the most ardent spokesman for negro civil rights in the past decade” with a lower-case “n.” We had a lot to learn in those days. (Still do, as Charlie Teo will point out in his Australia Day Address next week. Australia and the US have lots of things in common, including racism. Remember Teresa Gambaro from last week’s blog? )

About 17 months later, another good friend, Ron Javers, who was going to be the next editor of The Villanovan and I, hitchhiked down to Florida at the beginning of the summer. On the first leg of our journey, we got a ride from Virginia from an African-American truck driver from New York. His name was Odell, and he was articulate, witty, a lover of jazz and a family man. We enjoyed his company, and we thought he liked us, too. Then we pulled into a truck stop in North Carolina, and he said: “This is where I have to leave you.” We felt a bit taken aback as we knew he was heading for northern Florida. Then we went into the truck stop and noticed a sign outside, saying “Whites Only,” in spite of the Civil Rights Act having been passed in 1964. What Odell meant was that he had to leave us there because he had to go to the area reserved for blacks next door.

He picked us up on the way out and we discussed nothing but black-white relations in the south for the rest of the journey, especially as he sped through Georgia. Odell said: “We don’t want to get stopped in Georgia. A black man with two white men in the cabin of the truck would mean trouble for all of us.” We saw what he meant when he stopped for coffee at a gas station in the State, with a counter reserved for whites in the main area, and a small dirty room for blacks in the back. This time we went in with Odell and a friend, a fellow black truck driver he had met outside. We could see the white clientele through the door into the restaurant and a slovenly (I’m being generous) waitress came to ask what we wanted. She could barely control her disdain for this mixed quartet of travellers. As she gave us the coffee, we could see some of the red-necked good ol’ boys giving us the onceover and making a move toward the door. We ran for our lives and just made it to the rigs in time. It was what Odell and his mate and Martin Luther King and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had to put up with all the time. It was 15 months after the bloody civil rights marches led by Dr King from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama (the state on Georgia’s western border), where state and local police used billy clubs and tear gas on the protesters.

This weekend, the Republican presidential candidates will be in South Carolina, the state to the north of Georgia, and another bastion of the Old South, for the next primary. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was with Dr King in Memphis on the day he was assassinated in 1968, grew up in South Carolina when segregation ruled over all the southern states. But Dr King’s long struggle finally broke the back of the racists, though they can still be found. As Jesse Jackson points out, South Carolina has a 28 per cent African-American population, and they may play an important part in the primary, but the Republican candidates have ignored them (here’s a link to Jackson’s article in the Huffington Post

If Martin Luther King were still alive, he would be fighting for jobs for African Americans in South Carolina, and Republicans would have to take heed of his final war on poverty called the Poor People’s Campaign. Jesse Jackson and others in the civil rights movement ( have described Dr King as the precursor of Occupy Wall Street. Protesters following in Dr King’s footsteps have occupied houses that banks would have otherwise foreclosed on. Occupy Homes is a movement that shows a lot of promise!

But the Republican candidates are wasting their time calling each other names, and, even worse, one of them, Newt Gingrich has described Barack Obama as the “Food Stamp President,” saying black people should seek jobs rather than food stamps. Gingrich went on to call for poor black children to take part-time jobs as school janitors instead of turning to drugs or prostitution. It’s enough to make Dr King turn in his grave.

In a week when Americans remembered Martin Luther King and his legacy, the Republicans forgot that Barack Obama was elected the first black president on a tide of optimism. And if he can manage to stimulate the economy and create more jobs, admittedly a difficult task, the Republican nominee, whether it’s Mitt Romney or a dark horse like Sarah Palin, doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the election.

And on that note, I’d like to end by proposing a toast to the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King and my brother Jack. I have a dream, too, that somehow they’d hear my toast and raise their glasses together, and respond: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty free at last.”

6 thoughts on “King for a day in the New South

  1. A wonderful piece of living history, and beautifully told. But since you wrote it, Tom, you must have been dismayed with the outcome of the SC primary, which … tell me it ain’t so, Joe … Americans are ready for a black president, and maybe ready even for a hypocritical adulterer who deserted two wives when they became ill and went after Clinton for his firkytoodling while at the time, he, Newt, was having a long term raging affair himself (by some of his utterances, you’d think it was with himself) BUT they’re not ready for a happily married, non-drinking, non-smoking business-savvy MORMAN President. Well, these religious-right nuts are at least prompting many an unbeliever to loudly mutter pieties like “Oh, for Christ’s bloody sake’.
    But great writing, old fella, keep it going.

    • Thanks for your kind words about my blog, Magpie. And yes, you are right I am not happy about a hypocritical adulterer suddenly leading the race for the right to be the Republican presidential nominee. It is possible, given the growing strength of the religious right, but I’m hoping Barack Obama can somehow improve the economy and create jobs, in spite of Europe’s desire to be isolationist and bankrupt. I will do my best to keep writing a good blog, as you do with the Townsville Magpie. I love your coverage of the about-to-be declared Queensland election!

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