Dr. King and the Environment


“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” Dr. Martin Luther King.

I was fortunate enough to live through some of Dr. King’s time.  I was raised in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s.

I came from a family that was not outwardly supportive of Dr. King. But my father had traveled as the driver, scorer and announcer for the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1940s. In that capacity, he had to help get food and accommodations for the Globetrotters when they came through towns in the South (and many times the north too!).  He almost caused a riot in one town during a game when he refused to drink out of drinking fountain for whites. That story was corroborated on a radio interview with the legendary basketball player Marques Haynes that is available online. Stan and Marques were close friends and maintained a letter writing correspondence almost to the end of my dad’s life.

JE: What about drinking fountains?
MH: At the auditorium in Atlanta where we were playing, we had this one fellow that was traveling with us by the name of Stan Bergstein. He traveled with us as a scorer and announcer. I was upfront in the area where people were coming into the auditorium. They had these two drinking fountains there, one for blacks and one for whites. Stan went over to get some water fountain and a guy asked him what was wrong with him. He said, “What do you mean what’s wrong?” He said, “You’re not supposed to drink out of that.” He said, “Hell, I’m trying to find out if there’s a difference in the taste of the water.” The guy was really starting to begin to get rough with Stan. It just so happened that the guy who was the promoter of the games and who was a big guy in Atlanta came up and said, “What’s wrong here?” The guy tried to tell him that Stan was over there drinking out of the wrong fountain. The man said, “So what? Look I’m promoting this game and if you come up and try to interfere with this gentleman again I’m going to call the Chief (of Police) on you.”

From the http://www.voicesofoklahoma.com/marques_haynes.html interview.

He later told me that he did it because he fought on the front lines in Europe and wasn’t going to put up with racism in America.  Stan  never was terribly vocal about his hatred of racism, he just didn’t like it and wanted it changed. He was fighting his own battle with anti-semitism in his work, most of which I learned later. On the day after King was killed, my father told me he was needing to go to his office in downtown Chicago, and get some work done. He didn’t ask me, but said he wanted me to come along. It was after dark. My mother was livid, screaming at him that the city was burning and how could he chance taking me to work on a Friday night into a possible riot? We went anyway. On the elevated expressway heading into the city, smoke and flames could be seen in the distance to the north and the south. There were almost no cars on the freeway. It was like the end of the world. We arrived in the city, it was nearly empty, and we got to my dad’s office. He did an hour of work, we drove to the post office, and he sent it off . And then we drove back. He said nothing the whole way to and from the office.

About two weeks later, after the state of emergency was lifted, a huge anti-war and pro-King rally happened in downtown Chicago. I covered it as a reporter for my school newspaper. As the crowds surged down the streets leading to the Daly Plaza, where the Picasso sculpture of his dog stands, the police sealed the streets leading into the plaza, trapping tens of thousands of us. They then started down the streets beating everyone they could. It was mass terror. I had not heard of such a thing before, and it was the prelude to the Democratic convention later that summer. As I cowered in the locked doorway of a restaurant, with the patrons inside and us out, unable to get in, I turned and saw a cameraman for the Chicago Sun-Times, in crew cut and suit, with press badges and cameras clearly visible, beaten to the ground by police. It changed my view of those in power forever. Somehow the wave of police swept past, leaving our little group unscathed, but with people lying in pools of blood all around us. None were armed and none had created any violence.

I had no real idea of the work Dr. King  had done until later in my life. My only close up experience was when he led a march through neighboring Cicero, the center for white supremacists in Chicago. All I remember is seeing people spitting at him and hurling epithets, and my mother in hysterics because she was sure he was going to get killed. And I of course saw his work on TV and in Life Magazine.

Dr. King was like a prism, and each person in America likely viewed him from their own angle. To me, he was a catalyst, demanding change to a system that was needing one. To many I’m sure his greatest work was done before he was killed, and likely to many more, myself included, his work in changing us is his legacy that one man can change many, and make a difference, by not staying silent in the face of power.  He and the people he affected, whether directly in his organization, or those wanting faster change, who were somewhat opposed to his slow pace, like CORE, created a new way forward, and probably the most amazing quote on how much has changed, was an African American co-worker of my late wife, in Seattle. He traveled  back to his home in the South in the 1990s, and came back after a month and said that he was amazed, that he felt more at home and experienced less racism in Alabama than in Seattle.

As to the environment, that issue was still in the early stages of being formulated (even though it was clearly in need of help and Silent Spring had already been published) when King died. There were others gearing up to address that issue. But his fight for equality and justice are clear markers for what he likely would have said had he survived.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

More on the Chicago riots at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Chicago_riots

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