February 9, 2015
Sitting in a dark theater watching the movie Selma on this Martin Luther King Jr. birthday weekend brought back many memories about how Dr. King affected my life, which eventually led to my work as a volunteer coordinator with United Way. As a white southerner who grew up just north of Atlanta, I remember the images of children being attacked by dogs as deeply disturbing. I remember seeing the signs marked “White” and “Colored” as a child and asking my mother what they meant. The early answer “that was the way God intended it” no longer sat easily with me when people began to die - especially when I thought how the Biblical message was to love one another.
I was a senior in high school when the Selma march occurred and I had begun to admire Dr. King deeply as a man who practiced what he preached. By the time I was in college, I joined local protests. When Dr. King was assassinated I felt compelled to join in the funeral march in Atlanta. Over the years I had changed from someone who accepted the old southern ways to someone who felt that injustice had to be confronted. Many of my friends and family did not understand my choices. I realized that I was not that interested in making money, I wanted to find work that made a difference in people’s lives. I worked with developmentally delayed children and later with job development programs for the State of Georgia, before coming to California. When I married a woman who had previously adopted two African American children, I faced some conflict with members of my family. We lived in the mostly black community of Grant Park in Atlanta but it took me some time to get used to the stares when I took the children to areas outside of our community.
Living in Atlanta in the seventies and eighties meant I had a chance to meet some of the people who marched with Dr. King. When Andrew Young was the mayor of Atlanta I had a chance to meet him several times at community gatherings. John Lewis, who had his head fractured at Selma, served on the Atlanta City Council before being elected to the US Congress in 1986. His son attended an interracial preschool with my stepdaughter so I also had a chance to meet him on several occasions. Dexter King, Dr. King’s youngest son, interned with the Georgia Department of Labor one summer when I worked there on a job training program.
One of my best friends back in Atlanta is Orville Marshall who was the sound engineer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A graduate of Georgia Tech, he was the only Caucasian employee at the time. He was hired after King’s assassination to set up sound systems at the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 in Washington. He went on to produce a radio show for the SCLC called Dr. Martin Luther King Speaks. I still have several tapes of those speeches. While everyone knows the “I Have a Dream” speech, my favorite quote is: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
I know that my work at United Way of San Diego County helps my community, my city, my state, my country and my world. I know that I am a part of that network of mutuality. We all are. But I know the work is not done. I want a just world for my white grandchild in San Diego and my black grandchildren in Houston TX. And all the other children on the planet. That's what it means to be free at last.
by Gary Cagle