One of the young ones said "Yeah, and Monday is a holiday, too."
"Monday is a holiday? What holiday?"
"It's a state holiday."
"What holiday?" I asked again.
This time I was not answered, but everyone looked around as though I hadn't said anything, or like I wasn't even there. The treatment felt vaguely like something from my distant past, from childhood, awfully familiar, but not experienced for so long that I could not place it. What came to mind was a description I once read of the non-reaction of a German when you asked him what he did during the Hitler years. Complete blank, and a quick change of subject.
Next, I was paged. It was some nice woman in the Plano building, whose AS/400 Client Access program had stopped functioning. I tried to debug it over the phone, standing there in the parking lot of a cheesy convenience store (I was trying to get to the airport to reclaim the eight millimeter tape drive United Airlines had consigned to a three day oblivion. The freeway was packed up, and I was navigating on surface streets through the old section of town, on the east side, north of the river. It reminded me of Smyrna, the town in Georgia in which I grew up. Bungalow houses built in the 1940's and 50's, of real wood. Some people kept their houses up real well, and others had cars on blocks. I could not remember the directory or file names of the program in question (I was beginning to run what soon became a debilitating fever. My brain was mush.) so I even got the laptop out and sat it on top of the phone shelter, to gaze at the file structure tree myself. Nothing worked. I told her to call me in Larkspur Monday morning for a reinstallation of the program, then I remembered.
"Monday is a holiday here, right?"
Complete and utter silence. Dead air.
"Hello? You still there?"
"Yes, I'm here."
"Some people here said Monday is a state holiday. I guess it's not a company holiday."
After picking up the long lost package at the airport, I limped back to the hotel. I just barely made it. In the car I had started to run a strong fever. Things began to get fuzzy. I promised myself two aspirin and collapse into bed. These things I did. I lay there for the rest of the evening, moving only for necessities. I zoned out on the TV. I settled for a while on a documentary on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Then the whole holiday thing fell into place. Monday was Martin Luther King's birthday! It was a state holiday, but nobody wanted to talk about it! One of Austin's big streets has been renamed Cesar Chavez, but they didn't even want to say King's name. Just like old times. I began to remember scenes from my childhood...
I remember when my mother took me aside and told me the facts of life. Not sex, but politics. My parents were not from the South. They lived in Georgia because that was where my father had found a steady job. One day, just before I started kindergarten, Mother sat me down and very gravely said "You are going to meet people who have different ideas about people than we do. They will say and do things that are not just wrong, but bad, but your Father and I have taught you the truth. All people are the same; God made us all, and you must treat everyone with dignity and respect, just as you have been taught."
"You're talking about the way they treat colored people, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am. You be different from them. Now, I don't like having to tell you this next part, but I have to. You do as you have been taught, but you'll have to keep it to yourself. Don't argue with people about it. Don't try to convince them. They won't listen, and some of them will probably hurt you if you say anything about it. We have to live among them, but we can not be like them."
I understood completely. I had already noticed that filling stations had three restrooms, "Men", "Women", and "Colored", and that there was sometimes no door hung in the doorway to the "Colored" room. I remember two water fountains, the "White" one a big, shiny aluminum and steel refrigerated unit, dispensing icy cold water on those hot southern afternoons. The one labeled "Colored" was a dirty enamel basin with lukewarm tap water.
I won't go into the details of the wholesale abuse, humiliation, the weirdness of the time. For those who weren't there, it's well documented, even on TV. Just a little here, so you will get more of the flavor: I remember when they introduced one black girl as a student in my high school, so they could say it was integrated. I recall how the Smyrna city limits were constantly redrawn to keep undesirables outside of the realm of city services. There was one block where you entered and left the city limits three times. I remember the family in the station wagon, getting lost in the night on the way home from the lake, and driving through the town square of some north Georgia podunk, smack into the middle of a Ku Klux Klan gathering, bedsheets, hoods, torches and all. My parents sat on stony silence and we kids didn't ask a thing. We knew. Much later, at my Conscientious Objector hearing before the draft board in Marietta, the token black member of the board, an elderly preacher, several times interrupted the kangaroo court proceedings with "Perhaps we should listen to what the young man has to say" and "perhaps the young man has a point." They pretended he wasn't there.
More personally, I remember the time my Mother came home from the hospital after the fourth childbirth, too ill to keep the house. My Father hired a maid to come and help with the cleaning and ironing. She was, of course, black. She was nice, even sweet, very industrious, but it was all too weird, too contrary to those principles Mother had taught me. This woman has a house and kids of her own. Who was taking care of them while she did our work? It was uncomfortably like being in the Georgia state movie, "Gone with the Wind", the happy darkies doing the white folks work without complaint. I didn't know how the others felt, but I felt like a slaveholder. The pitiful "wage" we were probably paying her made no difference. I felt dirty, and ashamed.
I guess the situation made the others uneasy, too, for within a couple of days we had the only formal family "meeting" I can ever remember. We all spoke, and we agreed that we kids would work harder, without complaint, so the family could take care of its problems without succumbing to the easy temptation to become like the despised southerners among whom we lived. I was relieved, and overjoyed that my relatives shared my moral reservations about southern life, and that for once they showed the gumption to act upon them when necessary.
Which brings me to Martin Luther King. I actually saw him once. When I was in junior high, in 1964, my parents let me start going to the main library down in Atlanta. One day, without telling them my plan, I gave the driver my fifty-two cents and took the Greyhound bus into the city. Instead of the library, I went to hear King speak.
It was a Saturday, so though he spoke in church it was not really a church service. I had seen him on TV, but only tiny clips, and nothing very long either. TV was local then and Atlanta did its best to pretend he was not happening. And NO sound bites! As soon as he spoke, I knew why they broadcast no sound bites. Here was a man, who knew the english language, knew how to use it, and said what needed saying! With me he was preaching to the choir. I had already come to realize that his destiny was tied up with my destiny and that his freedom was inextricably bound to my freedom. Neither would I be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. No white man I knew dared say these things. Maybe their mothers, like mine, had told them to keep quiet about it. Maybe they were just scared. Perhaps we could live in a decent world, after all. Yes, there would still be disagreement, even struggle, but it if we would only try, and keep trying, the future would be something like what Winston Churchill said to its detractors about the United Nations; that the UN was not designed to lead us into paradise, but to preserve us from catastrophe!
It was then I began to ignore my mother's warning. Carefully, with chosen people at chosen moments, when it might actually do some good. Even though I cloaked the message in the mantle of bible verses and couched it in the words of Jesus Christ himself, it didn't work. I began to know personally the vacant stare, the silence.
When King spoke at a million person march, men and women came, of their own accord, even some white people. They walked with somber dignity, filling the streets of their capital, and King's dream walked abroad in the land, and things will never be the same. We might take two steps backward, way too often, but it will never be like it once was, Newt Gingrich and David Duke not withstanding.
I remember the night King was killed. I was a senior in high school. The first I heard of it was when my girlfriend called me up and told me. She was actually happy, triumphant, exultant! I loved this woman, and I thought I knew her. She prattled on, and it was my turn to be silent. I knew then that my destiny lay elsewhere, that I would very soon leave the south and never return.
I confess that I have been back to visit. Yeah, Bob Barr and his closet klansmen stalk the land, seeking whom they can devour, but they dare no longer to do it openly. The bathrooms are gone, the water fountains are gone. Still, only an evil man, or a blind fool, could believe that we live in a colorblind society. Black people still live harder lives than white people. But black people vote now, and there are black people as mayors, as members of the state house. Quite recently I heard Jessie Jackson say that it is a four stage process. First, freedom from slavery. That took 300 years. Next the ability really to vote. That took 100 years. Then the reality of holding political office. That took 25 years. He said that the last step is representation in the boardroom. A real place at the economic table. How long will that take? After going to Austin and, even there, in perhaps the most forward thinking, least prejudiced town in the state of Texas, still finding the stare, the silence, I wonder if I shall live to see it. But the curve is converging fast. 300, 100, 25. Who knows? When it does finally happen, we will have King to thank. Not him alone, by a long shot, but he was the first person to say the words out loud, in front of everybody, and make it stick.
So come on, Austin, wake up. It was black people gave you the music so central to your life, even your beloved country music. If it weren't for them, we'd all still be morris dancing to english folk tunes.