The recent anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death showed an old photo of Martin pulling out the charred remains of the small burned cross from his front yard with his young son beside him. It sent chills down my spine as I recalled that same time in history when I was a young boy. I had already been told I was too outspoken and too young for holding opinions of racial equality that were at odds with the prevailing culture of my land and people. I was told if I didn’t shut up, somebody would burn a cross in my yard. I was only nine, so such threats meant nothing to me. They had no basis in my reality. I had never seen anything like that and it didn’t make any sense.
I was coming home with my family late one Saturday night after we had been to The Movieland Drive-In theater in the nearby town. I am the oldest of four children and we were in the back seat of our mint-green Pontiac Chieftain convertible, my siblings being fast asleep after a long evening. I always enjoyed staying awake and leaning forward between the two front seats so I could talk to my parents. Seat belts were non-existent in those days. There was only one two lane asphalt road heading back to our house in the country. I knew the road well, with the railroad tracks on one side and the pine trees on the other. It always took about half an hour to get home and there was a full moon. It was a hot night, so the convertible top was down as we rounded a curve. Suddenly there were lights ahead as we approached a large clearing in the pines. Dad started to slow down because there were many cars parked close to the road on both sides. I couldn’t make out what was going on but I could tell from my mother’s behavior that it wasn’t good. Then I saw it. It was a large cross on fire! It illuminated everything and I saw people everywhere. Some were milling around talking to each other while others were tending to the fire. There were some wearing white robes off in the distance, but most of the people looked like regular country people. My mother was very frightened and urged my father to leave as fast as he could but I could not take my eyes away from that large burning cross. I could hear the roar of the fire as the flames reached high into the summer night sky and I could feel the heat. Just as quickly as we had come upon it, it was gone, in only minutes, and it seemed like it was darker than ever but I could still smell it as we returned home. That sickening smell of gasoline, wood and hate.
Only then did I understand what it meant when people talked about a cross burning. For years thereafter, I feared a cross being burned in our front yard as people had threatened. There were many times I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I had heard people talking, and go to the window overlooking the front yard and fear a burning cross with people standing around. The fear was now real to me, and if it happened to my family, it would be my fault. Now I understood how black people felt if they got out of line, got ‘uppity’ or broke any of the Jim Crow laws. The strange thing is that rather than allowing it to stop me, it furthered my resolve fight back and end it.
For sixteen years I have lived in Memphis and the other day I met an old friend for breakfast at the ‘Arcade’, a small diner near the old Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I took time afterward to drive by the Lorraine and see the balcony where Martin drew his last breath. I thought of that photo of the small burned cross in his front yard and the photo of Martin laying on the balcony with his friends pointing in the direction of where the gunman, James Earl Ray, had shot him. I thought about how brave he was to have lived his life in his pursuit of justice. Rather than allowing hate, bigotry, and fear to stop him, it only furthered his resolve to end it.
Courage, it is said, is not the absence of fear, but doing the right thing in the face of it.