The nightmare

The story behind the picture*.

The night Dr. King’s Dream turned into a nightmare.

I had the privilege of working with Martin Luther King in the last two years of his life. I knew him as my employer, my minister and friend and not only him, but also the rest of his family. As Assistant Director of Public Relations for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) my responsibilities included making the recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and sermons and then sending them to the media and making them suitable for radio programs.

In that capacity I accompanied Dr. King on Meredith Mississippi Freedom March in the summer of 1966.

The march was an idea of James Meredith, the first Black student in the University of Mississippi. He decided to march from Memphis Tennessee to Jackson Mississippi to show the world that Mississippi was still not free from racial hatred.

Just across the river from Memphis Meredith, was shot and wounded. When this happened SCLC felt it couldn’t refuse to take part.

The march was not something Dr. King and SCLC, were happy about. For the first time the organization had gone into the North, beginning a new stage in the Movement.

To be involved in this march in the South would mean fighting a “war” on two fronts. Attention would be diverted from the campaign to expose discrimination in urban housing in Chicago

This was the time of rising Black Power and pride in being an Afro-American. Black Power meant different things to different people. Black Power in the sense of Black political power, just like Irish Power, Jewish Power, or other voting blocks was something positive. It mean pride in being an Afro-American, you could be yourself and not try to be like Whitey. In the Media it had a negative connotation of Black supremacy, like White Power as use by White racists. This implies exclusiveness. This was in the air during the march.

Dr. King was for building coalitions and not for excluding people on the basis of skin color.

This march in Mississippi, a state sweltering in racist hate, was constantly under the threat of death.

When they found a Water Moccasin, a poisonous snake, in the toolbox of one of the trucks which had been placed there by the Klu Klux Klan, a group called The Deacon of Defense wanted to carry guns to protect the marchers from racist attacks. Dr. King said we don’t want this. If guns were found this would give the police an excuse to use bullets instead of clubs and teargas.

One night we held a meeting outdoors where the marchers camped for the night.

The leaders spoke from the top of a truck where I had set up the public address microphone.

That night Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Black Panthers claimed that nonviolence was not effective and stressed the need to defend oneself with violent means. He said in his speech and I quote. “We ought to burn down all the courthouses in Mississippi to expose the filth and corruption inside.” He then ended with the chant “Black Power, Black Power, Black Power.” The media send out only the words. “We ought to burn down all the courthouses in Mississippi” and left out the rest of the sentence. This turned this figure of speech into a literal command for arson. The nationwide TV news ended with the angry looking mob shouting “Black Power”. This meant that from that point on the media, which had been focusing on Dr. King and the positive image of courageous nonviolence in the face of brutal racist violence, now focused on the negative image of Black Power. The TV did not send out the inspiring words of Dr. King I heard that night. He said in response, “We have a Power, a Power that is more powerful that an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb can only destroy. Only the power of love can change men’s hearts.”

In that long night I personally argued for some time about nonviolence with Stokely. He said to me, sneeringly, “You should preach nonviolence to White folks, not us.”

Ironically I have been doing just that the rest of my life all over the world. But not just to White people, but in keeping with the principles of the Dream, to all regardless of color. To teach oppressed people and others wanting to end war, racism and poverty on how to meet physical force with Soul Power and thereby turn violent nightmares in to peaceful Dreams of freedom and justice.

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