THE MEN WHO CAME TO DINNER

THE MEN WHO CAME TO DINNER

When Martin Luther King’s assistants did a thorough security search of my little house in Media, I remember thinking they were being overly dramatic when they asked me to close the drapes over the large window overlooking N. Jackson St. It was a dismal, bone-chilling February evening in 1968. King and James Framer, Jr., then director of CORE, Congress for Racial Equality, were to have a meeting and dinner at my home away from the radar of the press. (I was delighted to recently see Farmer played as a 14-year old student in the Denzel Washington movie, “The Great Debaters”)

Farmer, looking tired, arrived first, by himself. He graciously accepted tea as I updated him on regional civil rights efforts. The perfect southern gentleman, I could see distraction in his eyes. Something was troubling him, for there was a sense of coiled up tension in his body language.

King and his two aides arrived a half an hour later. King’s weary face brightened as he and Framer clasped arms. Men had not yet begun to hug.

Accepting tea, the house secured, King and Farmer sat in earnest discussion in a corner of the living room while the rest of us hung out in the kitchen preparing dinner. For once my four sons were subdued, eating their early supper without spillage or complaint followed by orders to read or play quietly in their rooms. They seemed to know that this truly was an exceptional evening, one that they would tell their classmates and teachers about.

There were eight of us around the table for the feast I’d prepared. Conversation was serious, for King was facing growing criticism for, in addition to civil rights, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his focus on  the connections between poverty, class and prisons, issues still unresolved forty years later. One can’t help but wonder what King’s role would be today, whether he’d be in prison or in politics.

After dinner, someone broke out a bottle of Wild Turkey. Glasses were passed and the mood lightened. While some of us were a little shy in the presence of two such powerful men, others boldly told stories and listened to King and Farmer as they regaled us with funny and evocative stories from the front (and back) lines of the civil rights movement. I don’t know who cracked the first joke, but soon King and Farmer had us laughing hard as they tried to outdo each other, one redneck joke after another. Alabama Sheriff Bull Conner, his dogs and southern prisons were the subjects of many chuckles, and I marveled at the power of humor to transform cruelty. The evening ended with smiles and a feeling of renewal for the fight ahead.

At that time, inspired by King, I was attending college as a single mother of four, one night class at a time. In early April, I was driving home pondering the sociology exam I’d just taken. The car radio didn’t work. Suddenly a feeling came over me that my father had died, though I knew it wasn’t my father. When I arrived home, the babysitter, Vickie Whitsett, was sobbing, for the news said King had been shot. In that moment I realized that my spiritual father had died, assassinated by the racial hatred that still holds America in thrall. Could America ever truly recover?

King’s philosophy of non-violence and service became the guideposts of my life and eventually my human rights activities focused on prisons, where slavery is alive and well.

On King’s birthday this year, Tavis Smiley on PBS interviewed King’s 80-year-old sister, Christine King Farris, still a professor at Spelman College. In reminiscing about her brother during the days before he died, she said, “Martin could never relax. He was always in fear.” I smiled upon hearing that, recalling that winter night in Media when King honored me and my family by relaxing and telling jokes in my home.

This was published in The Swarthmorean in April 2007 by Judith Trustone, Director of Sagewriters and Co-Director, with Lifer Patrick Middleton, Ph.D., of The Global Kindness Revolution. They have distributed more than 50,000 Kindness Cards globally.      

She is the award-winning author of Celling America’s Soul: Torture and Transformation in Our Prisons and Why We Should Care, which has been called “the best book in print that describes prison from most every perspective” and  the whimsical The Cats’ Secret Guide to Living with Humans in addition to publishing a dozen books by prisoners, families, victims, advocates and progressive corrections professionals

 

Deemed “Peacekeeper of the Year” by the Delaware County Peace Center in 2007, she was given the Leeway Foundation’s “Transformation Award for women artists who use their art for social change. She leads “Kindness Circles” on the 2nd Saturday of very month at Swarthmore’s town hall as well as a “Virtual Kindness Circles” for those in prison or who are unable to attend.

Her two documentaries, “Soothing and Nurturing Human Spirits” and “Healing Justice: a journey into Shadow America,” have just been released on a single DVD. To schedule film screenings or to create a Kindness Circle for your group, organization, school, religious institution or business, contact her at info@TrustOneKindness.com or 610-328-6101 or on YouTube, TrustOneKindness

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