This week, tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will abound in the print and electronic media. He is rightly remembered as a visionary leader, an eloquent speaker, and a champion of equality. Looking back, I remember him as all of these. But as a child, watching him on our black and white television and seeing photos of him in the newspaper, I remember simply thinking how elegant he was.
He marched through the center of city streets, locked arm in arm with other well-dressed men, in a crisp white shirt with French cuffs, perfect narrow tie, tailored suit and brilliant shoes. His gold Rolex would have looked pimpish on anyone else, but on him it was somehow subtle. His clothes conveyed a straightforward sense of self-respect, dignity, and purpose. Only his words resonated with me more.
His antagonists, by contrast, sported ill-fitting banlon shirts, baggy dungarees, and greasy hair as they spewed hate from the curbs and sidewalks. Tellingly, I commented to my mother that their rants were almost always grammatically incorrect, as opposed to Dr. King’s articulate, eloquent, and inspiring speeches that are now part and parcel of our cultural landscape. More tellingly, the racial slurs and myopic arguments for segregation now sound (even more) dated and ignorant. Dr. King’s impassioned pleas for tolerance and peace echo with timeless wisdom and universal truth.
Racial discrimination in education, housing, and employment, voting rights—these were concepts of which, as a child, I had only the vaguest grasp. In my young mind, the image and voice of Dr. King were enough to decide the contest. He had out-dressed his adversaries. He had out-spoken them. He had out- classed them. He was right, I knew, and he would prevail.
One afternoon not long thereafter, my father called to me and asked me to sit with him at the kitchen table. He slowly explained to me that Dr. King had been shot and killed. Death was also a vague concept for me at that time, but loss was not. I had lost someone important, and so had the world.