Dr. King, White Catholics, and Me
I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but meeting the great civil rights icon would eventually help me through a crisis of faith.
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It is impossible to talk about meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without first mentioning my father.
On a Monday afternoon in October, Dad died of a heart attack in the arms of my 13-year-old brother. At the time this was happening, we did not know my brother would eventually devote his life to civil rights as a trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. All we knew was that he had made a desperate attempt at CPR in hopes of reversing the inevitable. And that it took my 9-year-old sister to tell him it was time to let go. Even at that early age, she could somehow see that Dad had already crossed over.
The dorm was noisy
when I got the call a short time later in New York. It came to me on a wall phone at the end of the hall just past the showers. I still remember the sound of running water as my neighbor delivered the news.
How could my father be dead? He’d been standing next to my mother, siblings and longtime girlfriend Felicia just a few months ago—waving goodbye as the train pulled away from the platform. Surely there was some mistake.
I crossed the quadrangle and disappeared into De LaSalle Chapel to pray. To light a candle, as I’d done in the past for a grandmother, an uncle, and a classmate who died in sixth grade. But I never thought I’d be lighting one for my father. Not yet. He was only fifty-six.
When I got back to the third floor of Jasper Hall,
I soon found myself sitting across from Brother Luke Salm, who was head of the Theology Department at Manhattan College and the monk in charge of my floor. “Your dorm mates have chipped in to buy you a roundtrip plane ticket to Atlanta,” he said. “I understand that you have a train pass because your Dad worked on the railroad, but you can save that for another time.”
I packed quickly. There was no time to thank everyone. To let them know how their kindness and generosity had blown me away. From the day of my arrival at Manhattan College, it was never lost on me that everyone on Jasper Three was white—except me and a student from Taiwan. When I accepted the plane ticket from Brother Luke, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to return to college, but I would find a way to thank them whether I did or not.
That trip to Atlanta was the first time I’d ever boarded a plane.
When it lifted off the ground, I was not the least bit afraid. The sky, the clouds, the widening distance between my window and the twinkling lights of the towering city of New York—all seemed normal to me.
At my father’s funeral, the priest wore white vestments. The switch from the historical use of black was one of the big changes brought about by Pope John XXIII’s Vatican Council. That simple change shifted the focus from the presumed finality and darkness of death to one of resurrection and the liberation of the soul as it reunited with God. I would find out later that Brother Luke had participated in Vatican II and contributed to this and other changes in the Catholic Church.
My family had been Catholic for generations. I’d been serving Mass and virtually every other religious service since I was in fourth grade. Dad’s funeral was the first time I’d seen a priest face the congregation during a memorial. Things were changing, but I was on board with all of it.
who would one day become an Emmy Award-wining network news anchor** [see Comments section for her amazing bio]—had been my girlfriend from the time we were in grade school. When she learned about my father’s death, she flew home from Mundelein College in Chicago and grieved along with the rest of my family. She was a great comfort to me. Just having her there underscored the connection we’d shared since childhood.
Felicia’s mother was like a second Mom to me. An active part of the Civil Rights Movement, she was a local radio personality who had also attended Washington High School with the boy who grew up to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While we were in Atlanta,
Mrs. Jeter learned that Dr. King would be attending an event at Paschal’s La Carousel. By this time, he had already given his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
It was not at all unusual for Dr. King to visit Paschal’s. That’s where he, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowry—and others like John Lewis, Julian Bond, and Jesse Jackson—often met over fried chicken and, in Dr. King’s case, vegetable soup, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Some folks even referred to Paschal’s as the movement’s unofficial headquarters.
After my father’s funeral, Mrs. Jeter encouraged Felicia and me to show up at Paschal’s, even though we were too young to enter the part where alcohol was served. She even handed me the keys to her beige Ford Galaxie 500 for the evening, something she’d done many times since high school. Mrs. Jeter was a generous and loving woman who was extremely good to me and trusted the two of us completely. We never betrayed that trust.
The lobby at Paschal’s
looked like the cover of Ramsey Lewis’s The In Crowd album. Everybody who was somebody in Atlanta had turned out. But Felicia’s Mom spotted us as soon as we entered and pulled us to one side. When Dr. King appeared, she thrust us both into his path and introduced us.
She wanted him to know that the movement’s work was succeeding in us. That we had both graduated with honor and received scholarships to college after co-editing the school newspaper and yearbook. Mrs. Jeter was a natural promoter. Like my own Mom, she’d been telling Felicia and me to stand up for ourselves all our lives.
With so many adoring admirers, meeting me was not the kind of encounter Dr. King would have reason to remember. But of course, I would have no reason to forget it.
What jumped out at me
as Dr. King shook my hand was how…ordinary he was. Yes, I know he was an incredible human being. I understood that and had been moved by the majestic power of his speeches, his voice, his charismatic leadership, the inspiring words that transformed a nation.
But standing there, looking into his eyes, feeling his hand in mine, I saw a man not unlike my father or Felicia’s dad, or any of the men I’d known so far. Martin King was just a man. Is it disrespectful to say that?
I don’t think so. Here’s why:
Dr. King was ordinary in the sense that he had to shave his whiskers and put on his shoes one at a time just like the rest of us. He was ordinary in the sense that he was perspiring in Paschal’s lobby as the crowd pressed in around him. Ordinary in the sense that shaking his hand felt like shaking any other man’s hand. It was just a hand. That’s all.
But I believe three things made him different from other ordinary men: his courage, his faith, and his willingness to die for something greater than himself.
I know this now, though I did not fully understand it then. I know it from his “But If Not” sermon. That’s where Dr. King compares Daniel’s refusal to bow down to a Nebuchadnezzar golden statue even though he threatens to throw him into a fiery furnace—with cowardly Christians who remain true to God only when things are going well for them.
I also know about Dr. King’s greatness from his “Mountaintop” sermon the night before he died. What made Dr. King different—and indeed great—was that he understood the meaning of Matthew 16:25: “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.”
The historical record shows
that Dr. King died to himself many times before April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated at the age of 39. He died to himself every time he conquered his own fear and put himself in harm’s way for the principle of NonViolent Resistance. He died to himself every time he let go of his ego—and allowed Spirit to inform his words and direct his course. If anyone had told me that night at Paschal’s that he would be gone within 18 months, I would not have believed it.
Although I did not recognize it at the time, something did happen to me the night I met him. The sky did not open, and the earth did not shake. But something barely noticeable yet no less important shifted in me.
Which I did not understand until I met the Archbishop of Atlanta later that same week.
While I was in Atlanta for my father’s funeral,
I learned that the Archdiocese of Atlanta was planning to close my alma mater, the still fairly new Drexel Catholic High School, in order to send its all-Black student population to two white high schools across town—one of which was housed in a condemned building.
Although it began as a high school for Black Catholics and others who wished to send their children there, most of us believed Drexel would become fully integrated instead of de-facto Black when two things happened. Passage of the Civil Rights Act and completion of Interstate 285, the encircling beltway that linked white Atlanta Catholics in the north with the bourgeoning upscale Black ones in the south.
But after those two critical events occurred,
Drexel remained Black. By the time I graduated, it had been five years since the school opened, and it was still 150 students shy of the enrollment required for accreditation.
I couldn’t understand why the Archdiocese would close a perfectly good school, which produced top-performing students who scored well on national achievement tests. Drexel’s students would eventually go on to become doctors, bankers, lawyers, engineers, judges, teachers, professors, a published novelist (Penny Mickelbury), and journalists like Felicia and me.
Why send my alma mater’s remaining students to a condemned building across town? Especially since Drexel was housed in a state-of-the-art, architect-designed facility with a courtyard? Why not use the newly completed I-285 to transfer white students from those other schools to Drexel? Wasn’t that what the new interstate was supposed to achieve?
Besides, the diocese had already done the same thing
several years earlier when it sent half of Atlanta’s Black Catholics from Our Lady of Lourdes Church downtown to the newly built St. Paul of the Cross in Southwest Atlanta. Why not do the same thing now?
To get an answer, I joined a handful of other former Drexel student leaders who requested a meeting with the Archbishop of Atlanta. We were sure we could convince him to reverse his decision.
These were the tumultuous sixties,
but we did not march into the diocesan offices raising hell. We did not show up with rifles like the students who took over a building at Cornell University. Nor did we issue any non-negotiable demands. Our only weapon was the belief that a reasonable and well-argued presentation of the facts would win the day.
Archbishop Hallinan was a kind-hearted Irish-American from Ohio. who looked like he’d been sent to Atlanta from central casting. If life were a 1940’s movie, he’d be the Pat O’Brien of Boys Town or Knute Rockne, All-American. The Archbishop had already taken courageous stands against segregation during his leadership. We knew where his heart was. If anybody would listen to reason, it would be Archbishop Hallinan.
But during the meeting,
he dodged every one of our questions. When we called him on this, he finally said this:
“The white Catholics in this city will pull their children out of Catholic high school altogether rather than send them to a Black school, Catholic or otherwise, on the other side of town. As archbishop, I can’t let them do that. So, you see, it’s up to you to be the true Christians in this situation. You must make the sacrifice and take up the cross just as Jesus did.”
A short time later, several Drexel parents signed a petition asking the archdiocese to keep the school open. But to no avail.
The Atlanta Daily World,
the city’s primary Black newspaper, published an editorial calling the decision a slap in the face to Black Catholics and an insult to the entire Black community, especially those in upscale Collier Heights where Drexel was located. The subtext beneath the school’s closing could not have been clearer: No matter how far up the economic scale you people climb, you will always be niggers to us.
Before that meeting, I had always believed that the church I belonged to was what its Baltimore Catechism had been telling me since first grade: One, holy, apostolic, and universal. I believed this so completely that I didn’t even question that we Blacks had to sit in the back pew of the white churches we sometimes attended before Civil Rights. After all, the Catholics were at least allowing us to enter the building. They went as far as they could within the limits of Jim Crow until those laws changed.
But when I walked away from the Archbishop’s meeting that day,
I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. I understand now what I did not understand then. Archbishop Hallinan wanted to integrate Atlanta’s Catholic Schools. He wanted that to be part of his legacy.
But he failed to recognize or acknowledge that closing a high-performing Black school with a college-prep curriculum and low teacher-student ratio was not the same as shuttering a poorly funded segregated public school with outdated textbooks and poorly trained teachers.
Ironically, the decision to close Drexel
subverted what integration was supposed to accomplish. In its way, it sent the same message as the famous white doll/black doll test. The white doll was better, prettier, more desirable. Period.
I get it. And I see now, as I did not see then, that white Catholics can be among the most racist people on earth. They prayed the same prayers we Black Catholics did. But their Jesus was not the same as our Jesus. Theirs was a convenient Jesus. And white Catholics were like the cowards in Dr. King’s “But If Not Sermon.” Our Jesus had been carrying the same cross for hundreds of years. A cross their white Jesus made for him.
I wanted nothing to do with a religion
that asked more of me than it asked of whites. And yet, I had in my hand the evidence of a return plane ticket to Manhattan College in New York. Paid for by white Catholic boys who saw the world much the same as I did.
My religion had received the first of many crippling shocks during that meeting with the Archbishop. But my faith had been reinforced by Dr. King. Not so much from that fleeting encounter at Paschal’s. But from the contemplation of his exemplary love. And the fact that I had actually met this ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things because of that very principled love.
But even that awareness did not liberate me
from racism’s power to distract. Much of my life after the closing of Drexel was motivated and even dominated by a desire to prove myself good enough. To show that I was equal to whites by becoming better than whites.
When the plane left Atlanta for New York one week later—at my mother’s insistence that nothing would change with my father’s death—I looked out the window and said to myself, “I am going to become president of the student body at Manhattan College.”
It was a trifling unworthy goal and a complete waste of time. But that is exactly what happened. Years after I met Dr. King, you could still find me in the spotlight on radio and TV “losing my religion”—and still trying to keep Drexel Catholic High School from closing.
©2023 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill | Music by Pete Seeger from the Internet Archive, Public Domain.
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Quite a poignant and fascinating piece; I was spellbound. It reminded and brought back home to me a personal story I’d not thought about in a long time. I hope you don’t mind if I expound. I’ll try to be brief and promise I’m going somewhere with this.
When I was in the 6th grade, busing was in full force in Charlotte, NC. We white kids would board the bus first. We’d take up half the seats and then the bus would go to a black neighborhood to pick up the other half of the riders. Many white kids would save seats for their black friends and most of us would laugh and talk all the way to school. Our bus driver was a young black man, he treated us all well, greeted us by name, was funny and all of us, to the very last one, loved him. All the world and everything in it appeared perfectly fine and dandy to me, a 10 year old white kid, riding that school bus.
At the end of the year, the school had the kids vote on silly things such as the most likely to succeed, most popular etc… and that’s when I got the idea. It was a given to everyone that Chris C, a white boy prone to Izod shirts, slacks and loafers, would win most popular student. We less popular kids, both black and white, who didn’t wear Izod shirts, slacks and loafers didn’t care much for Chris C. What if I could get all the black kids and my few white friends to vote in bloc for me, an unpopular white boy, to be most popular? If I won, it would show and shock all those izod, loafer wearing snobs! It would be a victory for all of us less popular kids, both black and white.
Well… it worked. When all the winners were announced in the auditorium and my name was called as most popular, all the black kids cheered and all the popular white kids sat on their hands. Everyone knew what the black kids an I had conspired to do and they didn’t like it one bit.
Many years later it occurred to me to ask myself why those black kids I thought I was such tight friends with didn’t say to me, “hey man, what about us? Why do you get to be the one? If you and your white friends and all us black kids - and we have the numbers - voted for one of us instead of you, we could win and stick it those rich, white snobs same as you.” The day I asked myself that question was the day I realized the insidious, inculcated racism many children including myself, grow up with even though we are unaware and have no inkling of it. The racism that lurks underneath white society, unheard and unrealized by many yet there all the while. Now we know it as white privilege. I just assumed that the natural state of things would dictate that I be the nominee and not one of the black kids.
Back then we patted ourselves on the back for the non racists we were and called it just everyone having a good time on the bus… until a black kid got a big idea like mine.
I was privileged almost beyond measure and had no idea of it. I thought neither I nor any of the kids on that bus had a racist bone in our bodies. That it never occurred to me that those black kids could have accomplished what I did with a little help from a few white kids proves the point of inculcated racism and privilege.
What was much more insidious and tragic, however, was that it didn’t occur to those young black kids either. They’d already learned, subconsciously and most likely without even realizing it, to step aside for the white kid and let him win.
I like to think that today, those imbued assumptions of who’s to be first and who’s to be last are long gone and no more. I’d like to think that all people be judged by their character and not the color of their skin. I’d like to think those 6th grade black classmates of mine would no longer assume to let the white kid go first and especially their children and grandchildren would not assume such a thing. I’d like to think the world is a better, more thoughtful and reflective place than it was in 1979, or 11 years after the death of a great American. I’d like to think…
Gosh, I wish I could have shaken his hand too, Andrew. Just for a moment. Whether he remembered me or not.
Superb piece of personal history with insights many of us can relate to. Your decision to become student body president was not a waste of time however. Manhattan became a better place because you did!