Martin Luther King has been in my thoughts and in my heart for quite a while this year. As always, I attended a celebration in his honor in my little coastal village, a celebration that always includes music and testimonials and remembrances. And I spent hours rereading his speeches on MLK Day itself. But I got started early in my celebrations this year by attending, on what would have been MLK’s 91st birthday, a concert performed by the Kronos Quartet. I have heard a lot of Kronos concerts, and this was one of those performances that riveted me to my seat for the entire 90 minutes and left me gasping for breath and close to tears. And close to the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The entire concert was electric, to say the least: it included “The Star Spangled Banner” (inspired by Jimi Hendrix), “Summertime” (inspired by Janis Joplin), “The House of the Rising Sun” (inspired by the Everly Brothers), and “Strange Fruit” (inspired by Billie Holiday). But the two long pieces, with voiceover, were the greatest triumphs. The first, “Glorious Mahalia,” featured Mahalia Jackson in conversation with her good friend Studs Terkel some 50 years ago; when she breaks into “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” her magnificent voice filled the auditorium to overflowing with love and compassion. Then the final piece, Zachary James Watson’s “Peace Be Till,” featured the voice of Dr. Clarence B. Jones, lawyer, musician, and speechwriter for Dr. King. As the Quartet played, Jones tells the story of being at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, as King prepared to deliver a speech, prepared for him by Jones. Jones says he was standing behind the stage, watching, as King took up the script of the speech and began to speak before the huge crowd assembled to hear him. After a paragraph or so, as he remembers it, Glorious Mahalia Jackson, who was seated on stage, shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin; tell them about the dream.” Jones said he was transfixed as he watched King put aside the prepared text and begin to speak, and he remembers saying to the person standing next to him: “Those people out there better get ready because they are fixin’ to go to church.”
When the crowd at the concert rose to our feet at the conclusion of this piece, some crying, many shouting bravo, and everyone clapping, we watched as a tall, slim figure rose from his seat and climbed on to the stage: Dr. Clarence Jones himself. At 89, he was two years King’s junior, and he told us about his first meetings with King, about how he as a budding new lawyer with a family didn’t think he could give up his work to join the movement—until he went to church and heard King’s sermon on the responsibility of black people. He signed up that day and was with King from then until he was murdered—and then beyond.
He talked for 20 minutes or so, in the deep, mellifluous voice we had heard in the voiceover, about King, pointing out that it is impossible to imagine King without music and giving us examples of how much music was a part of King’s mission and message. A musician himself, Jones said he thought he could write for King because he knew music and because he listened so very, very carefully to King, soaking up every rhythm and cadence. “When I put in ‘pause’ or ‘repeat’ in a speech, I put it there because I knew he was going to do it,” he said.
I’ve been thinking about this moment ever since, pondering the crucial importance of listening as well as the crucial relationship between words and music. And as I’ve traveled across the country these last couple of weeks, I’ve been asking young people about King, about what they know about him, about what they know about his words and the music of those words. I didn’t meet a single young person who did not know the name, Martin Luther King, or respect it. But I also found that their knowledge and understanding of him and his work did not go very deep. How is it, I wonder, that we keep our cultural memories alive? How do we keep the knowledge Jones spoke of alive? It seems to me that one powerful answer to this question is through school in general but through writing in particular. So I think that in the future I will ask young people to write about Martin Luther King Jr., to dig into the story of his life, to work through his family tree, to listen to his speeches and be captivated by the music that soars through them. Write. And. Remember.
Happy (belated) Martin Luther King Jr. Day, now and always.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 682116 by adampaulclay, used under the Pixabay License