Long ago I knew Martin Luther King. I was not a friend. I was one of the masses. I believed a patter that had been fed to me, and I had taken it as truth and I was poisoned by it. We are all subject to prejudice. Mine was not the simple prejudice of black and white, connecting some inaccurate trait to a whole segment of society. Mine was a prejudice of ignorance, accepting the marginalization of a truly great man. I had been told, and I accepted a story of M.L.K. that was far from correct.
The value of this story is not in my transformation, for men for all of time have studied, and have improved, and learned. The value of this story is in the source.
It was a working day and a long long drive. I was in a company truck, loaded with tools, and towing a trailer. I stopped to pick up my employee, James. James was a black man. He was raised in central Virginia in a time when the education of a black man was seen as unimportant. He was unable to read or write, but he could do simple math (his father had told him “so they can’t cheat you”).
James was hurting. He had been thrown from a horse, who he was breaking for the local preacher. James, as he recalls it, was thrown from the horse by God, because of the impure thoughts that he had for the preacher’s wife. So began a four or five hour trip and conversation between me and James.
James lived on a small farm. He had no electricity because at some point he had a dispute with the power company and he told them that he would no longer buy electricity from them. He had a small generator and he started it when power was required, but that was a luxury that James didn’t need. He had a dog, too. The dog, aptly named “Dog”, would get the pigs and would chase them into the pen each night. James explained that he would come inside and, when asked “did you get the pigs in?” he would smile to let James know that all was taken care of. James drank a bit of beer. It was, necessarily, warm, but “ok”.
Conversation drifted from Dog, to God, to preacher, to preacher’s wife, to horse, then finally to Martin Luther King. James knew much of M.L.K. his knowledge was infused in his little church, and he revered the man. He would say how he changed the world, I would offer my marginalization, he would say the he knew that he was giving his life for a greater good, I would say that he was just unlucky. It went on for the remaining hours of the trip.
James got to me. I realized that Mr. King was one of the grandest historical figures of our age and I realized that all of my knowledge of him and his life and legacy was superficial heresy.
I studied. I began to know a man who would influence me as Gandhi did, a truly great man, who subordinated his safety and, ultimately, his very life, for the betterment of all mankind, who saw his place in history, who did, indeed, see the cost and chose, nonetheless, to pay it. James was right, it was there in his writings, his notes, his “I have a dream” speech. I began to feel his feelings. My God, I loved this man!
The presidential calls, the communication with Bobby Kennedy, all of the information – it was exactly as James had said it to be. I was so ill advised – so poorly schooled, so ignorant. Could I look life and death in the eye and walk the line undaunted, as he did? Could I, if so tested, be the man who he was? What strength did he draw on to step onto that balcony that horrible day? How could a man be so strong?
We are a composite array of bits of information gleaned from our environment. If we limit our input or the depth, breadth, or diversity of our consideration, we, ultimately, limit ourselves. I am thankful for that long truck ride and for James, and his patience. He taught me about a man who exemplifies honor and selflessness. He taught me of a man who understood the greater good of man. He taught me, most of all, the frailty of obstinate thinking.
I am a better man for having known James and I am forever in his debt for introducing me to a friend, who will forever influence my life, Martin Luther King.