“Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the second federal holiday of 2011, is one week from today, and I will write more about Dr. King next time. But even before celebrating his birth I had to think about his tragic death.
June and I left on January 5 for a car trip to New Orleans, and we spent the first night in a motel on the outskirts of Memphis. Early the next morning, we drove just a bit out of the way to see the Lorraine Motel, which is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum and which opened twenty years ago in 1991. As you remember, Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the second floor of that motel on April 4, 1968.
Then in New Orleans we had to reflect on the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. About 80% of the city was flooded due to the effects of that hurricane in 2005. Around 182,000 homes were destroyed, and more than 1,800 people lost their lives. We spent an hour or so Saturday morning driving around the Ninth Ward, the area hit the hardest.
Today we plan to visit the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock and spend the night with friends we knew in Japan (if we can get there from Pine Bluff on the snowy roads). Thinking about Little Rock brings back memories of the unjust treatment of African-Americans in that city in the 1950s.
In 1957, the year June and I were married, nine African-American students were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. The ensuing Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Governor Faubus, and then attended after the intervention of President Eisenhower, is considered one of the most important events in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1998 Congress established Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, and we plan to drive by to see that today, too.
Even though we have been travelling a trail of tears, still there is hope. While there is still much de facto segregation of schools, students of Central High School in Little Rock are now about 43% white and 53% black (and 4% other). An impressive Little Rock Nine monument was erected on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in 2005. Forced racial segregation is unthinkable in this country now.
Even though the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, partly (or maybe even largely) because of MLK, Jr., there was still considerable discrimination toward African-Americans until the many changes that were made in the aftermath of King’s assassination.
And even New Orleans is making a comeback. In the hotel area and around the huge convention center, as well as in the French Quarter, there is little evidence of flood damage. In the Ninth Ward there are certainly many empty lots and many damaged houses still visible, but there are numerous new houses and fully repaired, redecorated houses all through the area, include the architecturally attractive and ecologically efficient houses constructed by the Make It Right Foundation, the Brad Pitt’s non-profit organization.
I am impressed with human resilience and the possibility of good emerging even along a trail of tears.