For me the recycling of digestible speeches and non-threatening quotes is patronizing.
No, it is not existential anxiety, although it could be. I skip the few hours of songs, stories and speeches intended to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Wallingford’s Town Hall which I have attended thrice since 2002. It is now 2020 and once again I decide to go elsewhere, seeking relief from the superficial ubiquity of quotes.
As I understand it, until 2002, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wallingford was on the front lines of commemorating Dr. King’s legacy since Martin Luther King Day was enacted into law in 1983 as a Federal holiday.
Anyone peripherally familiar with my town might assume my disquiet is a hangover effect from the town’s very public controversy in 2000. This controversy was seen differently by life-long residents, newcomers, city leaders, union representatives, churchgoers, and young people my son’s age including my son, Houston. Amidst the very public turmoil, I get some video footage of Jesse Jackson speaking at our Town Hall. Reverand Jackson reminds us that he was with King the afternoon of his death.
In 2018, my community television station unexpectedly expands my understanding of this historic day in the local arena.
Beth, a life-long resident, decides to contribute to a show called CommUnity Conversations that brings two people together to share a topic from their individual perspective. Her first topic is Race in Relationships. Beth brings her new friend KiKi, a person of color, to WPAA-TV for a few conversations on their experience of being friends. In the very first three minutes of the conversation with KiKi, Beth weaves together many loose ends for me and illuminates my sentiment I am here for a reason. She affirmed I am indeed doing justice work. Beth’s story, in mothballs for decades, would otherwise never have seen sunlight. I consciously use a video clip from this conversation in our 2018 Video Annual Report.
The 25-second trailer soundtrack of the 20-minute Annual Video Report is as follows:
I’d be happy to share my story.
Almost on queue you hear crash.
Erin it’s back to you.
If we didn’t see a need …
I’m always hopeful.
I asked the magic question …
You can now go on your phone and register to vote.
What would you say is the take-home lesson from our story?
I wasn’t aware that the Ku Klux Klan was in Wallingford.
Each segment begins, “Welcome to our CommUnity Conversation,” and then the conversation continues with whatever the contributors decide to say.
“I am Beth. This is my friend KiKi and we will be talking about race in relationships today. So, for me growing up in Wallingford,” Kiki nods and affirms, “Right.” Beth searches for both her memory and courage This video will be seen in Wallingford, after all. She continues, “which was (hesitates and starts again) at the time the clan was very predominant. You’d walk down Center Street and you would see, you know, the sheets. Going to the corner store they were there. You would see the black hearses, Beth gestures as if outlining the route, coming down with the clansmen. They would go into this graveyard.” The iconic symbol of our town’s history. Again she describes the scene from her childhood before mentioning her feelings. “Umm, across from where the pizza place is AND I JUST REMEMBER STANDING THERE AND THE FEELINGS THAT IT GAVE ME. Some fear. Because no one ever really talked about it. Because nobody knew who these people were.”
KiKi asks, “And so you didn’t know,” they simultaneously say, “who they were?” Beth continues, “I didn’t know who they were. They were just these men in these sheets. It wasn’t like an open dialogue that we would have in the community. It was not like it would (casual gesturing) be like What’s up with this? It was just, you saw them. You kept quiet. You did not talk about what you felt. You did not talk about how it made you feel.”
She continues reflecting on this moment that does not come fully into view with some justification.
“And I know I was pretty sheltered and I grew up and everyone was the same color. Everyone thought the same way. The values! The morals! Everything was exactly the same! I did not have a lot of friends that were black. I never had the chance to communicate with anyone outside of my own race. I remember very distinctly there was a (she pauses and restarts) In Wallingford at the church near Archie Moore’s this being St. Paul’s Episcopal and Jesse Jackson had come in. And it had something to do with Martin Luther King Day, and (pause) what ended up happening is we had this (pause) I do not want to call it a protest but it was a march to the Town Hall. So we walked into the church and the clan was outside and they were all like lined up and they had their speaker with their microphone.
Let Me Interrupt with My Distraction
My phone buzzes. Its screen fills with Twitter news posted by the local paper. I am immediately jolted back to the present, 2020. I pause the video I am watching to ingest the news In Wallingford, technology eliminates need for police couriers. This breaking news is about the use of email to conduct the town’s essential business. It reports a new development that is only news because of our Mayor’s disregard for technology One of my pet peeves. The tweet reports on the absurd delay in the use of email replacing use of police couriers Email was created about the time of King’s assassination after all. The police will no longer be Town Council Meeting document couriers. For years, the Wallingford Police Dept. reported staff shortages in several budget workshops but continued to lose hundreds of man-hours each year to be used as postal couriers getting documents to Town Councilors in preparation for their meetings. Documents that could have been distributed via email decades ago. Notably, the distribution will be from one of the few email addresses associated to the town government to the personal emails of the councilors.
My personal Twitter feed describes me as a “community media frontline volunteer: discovering, capturing, producing & sharing stories to keep the engines of service & democracy going in my town #W06492.” From this vantage point, I re-tweet without comment and leave this distraction like so many in my day.
I Am Here
I take the video off pause to hear Beth recall, “They had their speaker with their microphone and they were yelling profanities and all types of things. And I remember walking out and standing there at the top of the steps where the church is and looking out and seeing them. And I remember shaking a little bit because they scared me.” She reiterates the awareness and the secrecy, “I knew nothing about them because it wasn’t something that we ever talked about But she wanted to talk about it now. Her friendship with KiKi emboldened her to reveal this childhood fear. KiKi picks up the conversation likely sensing the timeline was unclear. “How old were you when you first experienced the clan?” Beth replies, “I want to say as young as ten.” That would put her early experience roughly in the year that MLK Day was signed into Federal law.
This CommUnity Conversation happens in early 2018. Beth is now 45. She continues, “When we were doing that march I had to be in my mid-twenties.” When I hear this clarification I realize Beth and I were at the same event, differently. Beth would have been closer to 26 and a life-long resident of Wallingford. Me? I was here as a relative newcomer with angst about what my 14-year-old was experiencing in this town with headline news about this town in an Internet-connected world. One thing I do know is that when he traveled and performed at poetry events he referred to home as New Haven, the place he was born, not Wallingford, the place his mother bought a house.
Wallingford was the last municipality in Connecticut to close municipal offices for the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday. It was national news My AmeriKKKan town. Shamefully, it took a state law to move the pressure needle on the civil rights gauge here. There was much cloaking by the Mayor of underlying truths as he pitted poor elder taxpayers and unions against what was right In my opinion. That may be the year the voice in my head began telling me “You are put here for a reason.”
From #CitizenMediaMaven_TheLife Chapter I Am Here For A Reason