The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

17 January 2005

Why this day matters

Nineteen fifty-four. The big story was in Washington, where the Supreme Court, to the surprise of many, had thrown out school segregation:

[I]n the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

This was the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and the Board of Education in question was in Topeka, Kansas.

Farther south, down in Oklahoma City, Martin Luther King, Jr., all of twenty-five years old, was knocking on the door of the Calvary Baptist Church in Deep Deuce, hoping to fill a ministerial vacancy. They turned him down: too young, they said. So King headed east, and wound up the pastor of Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Clara Luper had studied Dr. King's work in Montgomery, where a twelve-month-long boycott of the bus system brought an end to segregation in Alabama public transit. In 1957, her play Brother President, about Dr. King's work, was presented in Oklahoma City with a cast of members of the local NAACP Youth Council, to which Luper was an advisor; the following year, she was able to present the play in New York.

The tour bus had taken a northern route to the Big Apple, where the children experienced for the first time the joys of non-segregated lunch counters. They came back through the south, where Jim Crow still held sway, and they vowed to do something about it. In her book Behold the Walls, Luper remembered it this way:

I though about my father who had died in 1957 in the Veterans' Hospital and who had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant. I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, "Someday will be real soon," as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, "Yes, tonight is the night. History compels us to go, and let History alone be our final judge."

And so it came to pass that Clara Luper and a dozen children walked into Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City and ordered thirteen Coca-Colas, and not to go, either. White customers left. A crowd gathered, mostly hostile. Luper and company stood their ground. Epithets were hurled. Finally, still thirsty, they abandoned their quest for the day.

The next day, all the children were back, and a dozen more besides, and they had but a single thought on their minds: "Let's go back downtown." They did. And this time, they got their drinks. Shortly thereafter, Katz headquarters in Kansas City ordered that their soda fountains in all their stores would henceforth serve all customers, period. The walls were coming down.

In 1960, Dr. King returned to Oklahoma City and spoke at Calvary. Fifteen hundred turned out to hear him. There would be no turning back.

Last week in the Oklahoma Gazette, reporter Deborah Benjamin asked former state senator E. Melvin Porter, who was among those 1500, where things stood today. Said Porter:

It's a legacy of hope, of inspiration, of overcoming. We've overcome many odds. But as long as you live, there will always be obstacles.... I doubt we can ever arrive to everybody being in a perfect society. But America is a better society, and I think that white people appreciate the legacy of Dr. King now more than they did when he was actually involved.

We're not there yet by any means. But we might not have gotten this far were it not for Dr. King. And that's why this day matters, to all of us, no matter which drinking fountain we got to use back then: today, the waters run more freely than ever.

Posted at 7:32 AM to Soonerland

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It may not mean as much to someone who hasn't witnessed it. We lived in Alabama in the mid 60s where they were slow to respond. Schools were still segregated. Restaurants would not serve Blacks. Most Doctors had two waiting rooms. Drinking fountains were marked "White" and "Black" or worse "Negro" :( If you walked down a sidewalk and met a Black he would jump off of the sidewalk and tip his hat as you passed.

We had a garden one year. One day a black knocked on our back door and asked us quite respectably if they could buy some of our greens from us. Mom got some paper sacks and told them they were welcome to pick as many of them as they could for free! While we were at it we threw in a few watermelons as well. That night the KKK burned a cross in our yard :(

Posted by: ms7168 at 10:13 AM on 17 January 2005

In December my wife and I went to Atlanta and visited Ebenezer Baptist, King Memorial, The Center for Social Change, and the King museum. I was born in '71, my wife in '77, I am white, she is black. It was quite eye-opening to learn of all the laws (including those in Oklahoma) that forbid interracial marriage, and even things so ridiculous as black and whites using the same phone booth.

I am so thankful for what Dr. King and his supporters did for the present and future generations, and he deserves this day of honour.

One regret I have about Arkansas, is that they choose to honor Robert E. Lee on the same day here. One would think they could find a seperate day to do so.

Excellent post!

Posted by: Nixon1971 at 2:16 PM on 17 January 2005