King was ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things

January 17, 2010

Note, this “Burger to Go” ran as an item on the Review & Opinion page in Jan. 17,2010 Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa. Part of the text was adapted from an earlier “Burger to Go.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 81 this year, perhaps gone frail and a little dotty. Thinking back on his arc as firebrand and martyr, that is frankly hard to imagine.

Those of us who were around in his day remember him differently than younger folks do.

While he was alive he was, depending on where you stood, a visionary, a man of God who held his country’s collective feet to the fire of its own founding documents or a royal pain and a threat to the (white) American way of life. Some saw him as the devil himself.

Since his assassination in the spring of 1968, he has undergone a sort of apotheosis and elevation almost to a kind of deity. That’s too bad.

What was remarkable about King was that he was, in the end, an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things. His death by an assassin’s bullet was unusual only in that he was in the forefront of the national awareness when it happened.

The Ku Klux Klan and any number of groups and individuals scattered fear and death across the landscape in those years, indeed, for decades beforehand.

One of the most heinous Klan murders happened 15 minutes from the house where I grew up in Athens, Ga. I was 14. It was in the summer of 1964, just nine days after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The victim was Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn of the Army Reserve, and a Washington D.C.-area educator, husband and father.

He and two colleagues were on their way back from a Reserve event at Fort Benning, Ga., when three KKK members pulled up next to the out-of-state car and gave Penn blasts from a pair of 12-gauge shotguns, blowing off the back of his head.

That happened at home, MY home. This wasn’t a grim photo of a lynching in the rural South. This was now.

People I didn’t know, but knew by sight, had done this. The world looked just like it always had. People went about their business, shopped for groceries and did laundry. Adults talked about it in hushed tones, some fearful, some gleeful. Some of the kids at school joked about it. A good start, some said.

Years later, one of the Klansmen involved in that murder, though not one of those in the car, owned a greasy spoon called The Open House Cafe across from where I worked the night shift at a print shop.

I used to go there for coffee and watch him. If it was me the way I am now, after 20-plus years as a reporter, I’d have asked him what he was thinking that night, what they thought they’d accomplish. But I was 19 or 20 then and afraid.

It was a different time. Almost a different country.

I mean in the sense of “Whites Only” signs over water fountains, and public rest rooms labeled “Men,” “Women” and “Colored.”

Fast forward nearly 50 years. Things are different. Not perfect but different. Change has come to America, as President Obama said in his acceptance speech, if at a glacial pace. It wasn’t fanaticism we saw on those faces in Chicago’s Grant Park that election night, despite fearful comments to that effect.

To be sure, there were and are fanatics on all sides, some of whom would deify Obama and some of whom would gladly put him in his grave rather than see him succeed.

The light in those faces late on Election Night was not the deification of Obama, but that of people who have for centuries stood out in the cold of our nation’s further reaches, allowed only to look in the windows and dream. On Nov. 4, 2008, they suddenly saw the door to that house open and a hand beckon them to come in.

Yes, there is still racial hatred and violence. Witness the 2008 beating death of a Latino man in Shenandoah, not so far from where you probably sit reading this.

But I can tell you that in 1963 that story would likely have never made even the local news outside of a one-inch police blotter entry, if that.

Even if it had, nobody would have investigated to the point that five locals, including three cops, would have been indicted in the case.

Back then, it would have been a thing whispered in bars and in sitting rooms. Some might even have called it a shame.

We can only speculate as to what Dr. King’s take would be on the movement he helped spark.

On the one hand, the same nation that once enslaved African-Americans has elected one to its highest office.

On the other, well. Look deep into your own heart. What do you see?

(Note: I believe all four of the Klansmen are now dead. One of the triggermen was shot in the chest—by a shotgun, ironically—by a man with whom he had been arguing.

The last time I drove by The Open House Cafe, which had been closed for some years, it had become a church.)


© 2010 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.

Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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2 Responses to “King was ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things”

  1. […] article King Was an Ordinary Man Who Accomplished Extraordinary Things wisps me back to the 1960s and reminds me of the atmosphere of the times including a heinous KKK […]

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