On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial, January 1, 2017

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Terry Engel

I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just a few feet from the engraved words that marked the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time of the speech, August 28, 1963, I was three and a half months shy of three years old. To the best of my memory, I was unaware of race; however, as a white child raised in Mississippi, the seeds were planted and the awareness would soon bloom.

That night on the national mall the temperature was in the low 40s and it felt like rain. The Mall was busy and the Memorial crowded, but it was large enough to accommodate a few hundred people at any given time and allow each group to celebrate the memorial in a personal way. Some people wandered the steps and the interior of the memorial in reflective silence, while others posed for selfies and group shots with Lincoln or the Washington Monument in the background. Tour guides, both professional and amateur, pointed out features and answered questions. Overall, the mood was light, appropriate for a national holiday and the first day of the new year, traditionally a day of hope and fresh starts. Traffic moved briskly on Constitution Avenue and pedestrians disappeared into the darkness, heading toward the one of the war memorials: Vietnam on the left, Korea on the right, and WWII straight ahead, at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, in line with the base of the Washington Monument.

I was traveling with a group of sixty university students and eight faculty, an eclectic mix of communication, business, and English majors. Each group had come to D.C. to focus on specific aspects of our disciplines; the English majors focused was on exploring the forms of narrative as expressed through semiotics, historic documents, monuments, memorials, buildings, and political bodies.

I had been asked to speak to the students about Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, an intimidating task in the best of situations, and surreal standing a few feet away from where he stood to deliver it, for me. It didn’t help that I only had seven minutes for each of the three groups. I’d pulled the speech up on my phone earlier in the day and read it again. I’d made a few notes about the persuasive strategies, the use of rhythm and repetition, and the historical context–the things I usually talked about in composition classes where I focused on King’s rhetoric.

For almost two months following the 2016 presidential election I had been mired in a state of despondency bordering on desolation, an emotion flavored with grief and mourning and a whole lot of anger, often misdirected. It is hard to capture exactly what I feel about the outcome. However, my fears about the incoming administration took on a physical texture standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King had spoken to a quarter of a million supporters about the atrocities of segregation. Over the course of election night, the hope that I had felt under the outgoing president, often battered but always surviving, dissipated and now the nation’s capacity for social injustice felt primed and ready to flow.

When it was my turn to begin, I climbed a couple of steps above the landing where King had stood, and I told my students about my “personal connection” to Dr. King. My father-in-law was a manager for Lowensteins’s department store in Downtown Memphis, and he worked the day that King was assassinated. He told me once about the aftermath, locking the doors of the store during the riot that ensued, and standing between the inner and outer glass doors while the riot flowed down Main street. The glass doors on the sidewalk were cracked, but not broken in, and he made it safely home late that evening. He repeated the story to me without judgement, like he was recalling a trip to the store.

I went on to tell the students about how once, while working with my father-in-law in his garage, I’d found three metal plaques that he’d removed from the doors of Lowensteins following the law that outlawed segregation: “Colored Men,” Colored Women,” “White Ladies Lounge.” Made out of a heavy bronze metal, four inches wide and a couple of feet long, the signs were symbols of the promise that had been made to African Americans by the Emancipation Proclamation and, as King noted in his speech, a hundred years later had yet to be fulfilled. I talked to my students about what it felt like to hold one of these signs in my hands, and I pointed out that it is probably difficult for them to really understand the degree of discrimination that King was speaking about: black only motels, blacks “in Mississippi unable to vote and blacks in New York with no reason to vote,” and children “stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘for whites only.’” When I talk about King’s speech in my classes, I place those signs in the hands of my students to let them hold a tangible symbol of hatred and fear.

Even though I was a child in Mississippi during the 1960s, I have no memory of separate water fountains and restrooms, but through the fifth grade I went to a school with four black children in my grade, and in sixth the city of Tupelo consolidated the entire grade–black and white–into a single building near the edge of the black/white divide. We were together from then on out, black and white, going to 7th and 8th on the white side of town, ninth at the former black high school named after George Washington Carver, and back to the white side for high school. During all those years there was little racial trouble that I remember. We went to classes together, played sports together, worked at Burger King and shared a prom upon graduation together. There were several blacks I considered friends, though the friendships were strictly daytime-school friendships.

Our senior year was marked by an invasion of the Ku Klux Klan into our city. It lasted several weeks and was marked by weekend rallies, complete with cross-burnings, marches, and opposing marches by black protesters that overlapped and resulted in tense word wars, spitting, and a little pushing, but no real violence that I was aware of. One Saturday night, out of curiosity, a guy I worked with at Burger King closed the store and cleaned the broiler, and then, about 2 a.m., drove out to the site of a rally. As we drove through the motel parking lot–ironically the same motel that would host the high school graduation dance in a few weeks–the sight of men holding shotguns in the shadows was enough to make us clear out of there fast. Another Saturday, I leaned out of the drive-through window of Burger King and watched a Klan motorcade of about thirty pickups flying Confederate flags and wooden crosses–the occupants driving and those standing in the truck beds wearing full hood and robe regalia–force motorists off the main street as they sped through the main street of Tupelo from north to south, ignoring red lights and oncoming traffic. That senior year ended benignly enough, with the Klan leaving Tupelo and our class president delivering a commencement address about bridging the gaps of race. It is a speech I wish I could hear again, because I’m sure most of it was lost on me in the moment. The night ended with blacks and whites on the floor together at the graduation dance.

I didn’t talk about all of those things on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but I thought about them. Rather I talked about the context of the speech–what had brought King and the marchers to Washington D.C., about the figurative language and rhythm and repetition that King was famous for, and about the conflict within the audience about whether to engage in “this marvelous new militancy that has engulfed the black community,” or, because so many of them had “come here out of great trials and tribulations. . . .fresh from narrow jail cells. . . .battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. . . . the veterans of creative suffering,” to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

As I read King’s words, I thought about my first job after college, in 1984. I worked as a production supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia. Most of the hourly employees were black, and most of the management was white, and tensions often ran high. I was once told by the plant manager that I needed to “run off” two of my crew because one was the president of the union and the other was the chief steward, because management was tired of dealing with the union, and because “they were black.”  Because I had only worked for the company a couple of months and was still learning how the plant functioned, my boss told me how I could trap the two men into a mistake that would be cause for termination. Because I didn’t follow through, I was demoted to graveyard shift. It was a terrible job.

Sometimes, in that sleepy time between two and four a.m., on the  rare nights when the plant was running smoothly and peace seemed possible, I would sit for a few minutes in the dim light of the press control booth. The green and red and orange lights on the control panel flashed and glowed, the particleboard mats rumbled down the assembly line, and the steam press hissed as it closed and began to transform wood particles and glue into particleboard. I shared a history of growing up in the South with Alphonso, the black press operator a few years older than me. The difference was that he had probably gotten the worst of it, growing up black in a small Georgia town and graduating to a job driving a forklift in a particleboard mill and working up the ranks to press operator, while I had gone from high school to college to a supervisory position in the same mill in a little over five years. I thought about what Alphonso said more than once on those sleepy nights, about how one day he thought that black kids and white kids would play together and it wouldn’t be any big deal.

I thought about Alphonso as I read King’s closing words to my students:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

and,

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

and,

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

When I finished talking to my students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it was hard to gauge what they were thinking. College students play their cards close, especially when reacting to a professor speaking with high emotion. It makes them uncomfortable. Most of them wandered off to the next station, where a journalism professor was planted to discuss the typography of the Lincoln’s words etched on the walls of the memorial. I stood there feeling the moment, feeling the surge of adrenalin that comes from speaking in public, wondering – as I always do – how my words had come off and editing my speech in my head, adding and clarifying, second guessing.

It was then that I noticed one of my students, an African-American with a sharp mind and a keen sense of humor and the capacity to understand and appreciate irony, sarcasm, and jokes. She was kneeling over the words of Martin Luther King Jr., tracing the letters that spelled out “I Have A Dream” with her fingers. I had no reason to believe that my words changed anything for Delilah, but she did give me a bit of hope as I thought about the next four years. She looked up at me and smiled. Then we walked off into the dark of the mall toward the Korean War Memorial to catch up with the rest of our group.

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Terry Engel lives in Arkansas and teaches writing and literature at a liberal arts university. He likes to backpack and canoe camp, and he is raising his daughters to be open to diverse cultures and experiences. His nonfiction has appeared in Cream City Review and Dreamers Literary Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Adelaide, Open City, Georgetown Review, Mississippi Review Online, Sixfold, Buffalo Spree, and has received honorable mention for a Pushcart Prize.

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