The following MLK Weekend Essay is a reprint of an April 4, 2008 essay.
I’m thinking about times more than forty years ago when I sang, “We Shall Overcome.” I’m remembering how I felt when I sang it, holding hands, swaying, anticipation in the air. I loved the idea of walking hand in hand, black and white together, and at the same time there was always a tension, a tightness in my jaw and in the pit of my stomach, the presence of fear. The song’s purpose was to get ready to do what had to be done. I’m committed to nonviolence, I recall thinking, but there are those who are not. They shot James Meredith, and lynched Emmitt Till, and burned Greyhound buses, and unlike me, they don’t want me to be safe. Uncertainty about what will happen tightens my jaw, while my heart commits me to the cause.
Remembering these fears rekindles my old thoughts. I remember the policemen in the church parking lot writing down the license plate numbers as if it were the Appalachin Crime Convention. My mind flashes from people sitting in a restaurant who stop eating to stare and sneer, to the incomprehensible Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, to the repeated, threatening phone calls, to kids on a school bus yelling hate names through the windows, to the Klan and the police, and wondering how they were different. I think about the person who ran over my dog.