Leading With the Heart
Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King
In retrospect, I can truly say, without reservations or doubt, that the weekend of February 21-23,1958 proved to be one of the most transformational three day periods of my young life. I was 15 years-old and had been selected, along with 400 other California high school students, to attend "Freedom In Our Time: A High School Conference on Civil Liberties" at the Asilomar Retreat Center near Monterey, a conference organized by the American Service Committee Office in San Francisco.
There were to be two keynote speakers. One of them was a young 29 year-old Baptist minister named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who just three years earlier had completed his doctorate in theology at Boston University. The other was Andrew Cordier, an Undersecretary at the United Nations' General Assembly and also the UN Representative working to resolve the Congo Crisis, and who later served as President of Columbia University. Dr. King was accompanied by his wife, Coretta Scott King, whom he had met five years earlier while he was studying for his doctorate and she was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Like the other 400 students, I was thrilled and excited to have been selected to attend, though I was never quite clear what the selection process had involved. As I recall, I had been given a flyer and encouraged to apply by my Advanced Placement English teacher. Growing up in "The Fillmore," San Francisco's then thriving African American community, I was somewhat familiar at least with who Dr. King was, since two years earlier he had come to national attention as one of the leaders of the now historic Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had no idea who Andrew Cordier was.
All these years later, I can still recall the palpable air of excitement as we piled onto the bus in San Francisco, headed for Monterey for what we knew would be an adventure. We were excited and nervous. The excitement we acknowledged, the nervousness we hid behind the folk songs like, "If I Had a Hammer" that we sang with great enthusiasm from the back of the bus. We were all feeling pretty special since Karen Handwerg, the AFSC Youth Coordinator, had explained to us what an honor it was to be one of only 400 students from all over California invited to attend the conference.
None of us knew quite what to expect. We knew a young Black preacher from the South would speak to us about non-violence and a UN diplomat would talk to us about world peace and what was going on in Africa. As teenagers, we were actually more excited about the fun we were about to have, and all of the new people we would be meeting, beginning with the ones on the bus. Our first stop was Palo Alto and two people got on who caught my attention. It was hard not to notice the girl struggling to board the bus with a guitar case that was almost as big as she was. Naturally I was particularly excited when she too headed toward the back of the bus. We would later learn her first name was Joan. It was easy, however, to miss a quiet, reserved young man who also boarded the bus in Palo Alto.
The students in the South might have been protesting and insisting on the right to sit in the front of the bus, but for our little integrated California coterie, the real happenings were in the back of the bus. Joan's guitar and harmony gave shape to our enthusiasm. I liked her immediately, and looking at her black hair and olive skin, wondered about her nationality--what kind of name was "Baez"? Joan was an instant hit, not just because she could play the guitar and sing, but because as far as we could tell she was the only Quaker among us. In the two hours that it took to get to Asilomar, everyone on the bus had exchanged all of the essential information. Joan's background, as it turned out, was a cross-cultural mix of Irish and Mexican, and, as far as I was concerned, it could not get any more interesting than that! I also learned that the woman at the front desk at the AFSC office, who always greeted us so warmly, was Joan Baez's mother--also named Joan.
We would later learn that the quiet, interior young man was David Dekadt, and that he was the only member of his family to have survived the Holocaust. As it turned out, David had survived because he was one of the children smuggled out of (I think Poland) as part the Kindertransport. He had then been adopted by distant relatives in Palo Alto. As we got to know him, David's silence and deep reflection took on a new and deeper meaning. Even though he was our age, he seemed older, and in a way he was since he had lived through fears and a horror that that we could only imagine.
The high point of the weekend at Asilomar was of course Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech. However, before he spoke, those of us on the San Francisco/Palo Alto bus got the shock of our lives as the girl Joan from the back of the bus with us was introduced and walked slowly to the the center of the stage. You could hear a pin drop as she sang Johnny Mathis' "Until the Twelfth of Never." Those of us from the San Francisco bus felt, by now, like we were her best friends and real insiders! We knew it was her first guitar, we knew she had only recently bought it (from Sears I think she said) and, most importantly, we knew that the woman who greeted you so warmly, as part of the front office staff at the Quaker office in San Francisco, was Joan's mother, Joan Chandos Baez.
Only later would we learn that we were witnessing history, since this was the very first time that Joan Baez and Dr. King appeared on stage together. She would later march with him Grenada, Mississippi in support of school integration, and perform with him and at his request throughout the South. The historical high point, of course, was being asked by him to sing "We Shall Overcome" to over 250,000 people at the March on Washington! However, that day in Asilomar, Joan sang so beautifully and was well received, and we were SO proud.
And then, the moment that we had all been waiting for arrived! A very young Dr. King walked to the podium. Because he was so young, his message seemed very accessible and we listened intently as he talked about the incredible courage of young people our age in the South, the risks they were taking and the dangers they faced willingly to make the world a better place. He talked about Gandhi and the creative power of non-violence; he talked about the redemptive power of love, and how Truth, Goodness, Righteousness, and Love would always win out in the end; he talked about personal responsibility and the power that we each have to make a difference. I remember vividly how at the end of his speech he not only got a standing ovation, but we were on our feet yelling and screaming and holding each other and crying! He spoke to our hearts! He spoke to our unformed visions of hope and possibility for the world. He appealed to our sense of fairness and justice, and to the fact that we were "special," but not in an elitist way. He made us feel special because he could trust us to "keep the faith" and honor the sacred call of LOVING a better world into existence!
The Centennial News, published by Asilomar in honor of its 100th anniversary, contains the only surviving quote from Dr. King's Asilomar speech that I have been able to find. In it he says, "Hate only intensifies hate in the world. Someone has to break the chain. Hate for hate ends in destruction." After his speech, I remember pushing my way to the very front of the throng. I needed to touch him, and I needed him to see me up close. I touched him, "Dr. King! Dr. King!" He gave me a big smile and he seemed a little surprised. There were very few African-American students, and I felt so proud to be one of them.
To be honest, I don't remember Andrew Cordier's speech in the same way. I do know that it was about peace and caring about the world and the people of the world--not just our family or house, or block or neighborhood or country. Whatever were the details of what he shared about the UN Mission in the Congo, his presence and commitment made me want to know and understand more about international affairs, international relations, and Africa and peace.
Almost exactly ten years later, Dr. King would be assassinated and I would write the following journal entry. The entry was later published as part of an essay entitled "Precious Memories," which was included in an anthology entitled, Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, with a Foreword by Maya Angelou.
April 4, 1968
Santa Fe, New Mexico
There are millions of stars here tonight, and lots of tears. "Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead."
"Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead." I kept hearing **Harry Edwards' voice, over and over again, "Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead." I had been anticipating last night for weeks. I was excited all day yesterday. Harry Edwards was coming to Santa Fe to talk about racism in general, and in the world of sports, in particular.
The auditorium at Santa Fe Junior College was packed. Nobody in the audience seemed to mind that he was a few minutes late. As he walked slowly onto the stage, with his head down, we all applauded enthusiastically. I was applauding for his presence and his courage*. He stood quietly at the podium for a few minutes, before making the announcement that, "Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead." There was a collective gasp. "He was shot and killed a few minutes ago in Memphis."
I can't stop crying today. Several times last night I had to stop on the road trying to get home. Poor Noliwe is having such a hard time trying to understand what is going on. How could any four-year-old? I tried to explain that she couldn't go to school today because we were mourning Dr. King's death. How to explain mourning? Finally--"We are trying to be very, very quiet and think about Dr. King. To remember his life and all he tried to do" (which was why she was going to school and why her father was not going to work). She just came in a little while ago and wanted to know if, "Mar-t-i-n-e L-u-t-e-r King would mind if I played with her doll?" Through more tears, I explained he was our friend and that it would make him very happy. I feel so sorry for us all!
Fortunately, the AFSC youth organizers were compassionate when listening to our pleas that we not be abandoned after such a powerfully transformative moment and experience. Somehow they found both the support and the funding that allowed about 12 of us from the San Francisco Bay Area to stay together as a group for over two years. But that's another story...
**Harry Edwards Phd is was one of the organizers of the 1968 Olympic protest captured in the iconic photo in which in which gold and bronze medalists Tommy Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists during the playing of the National Anthem. It was a powerful and symbolic gesture of support for the expanding Civil Rights Movement in a year that saw an escalation of the war in Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The Australian silver medal winner Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solitary. The would all suffer serious as a result of their actions and would never be allowed to compete again as professional athletes despite the fact that all three were record holders.
The Lasting Impact
Reading recently about Joan Baez's star-studded 75th birthday celebration, I was naturally struck by the observation that she intersperses her vocals with off-the-cuff reminiscences--one of which was how once her designated job was taking responsibility for waking an exhausted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
The most immediate impact upon leaving Asilomar after hearing Dr. King, for me, was to return to San Francisco and as Youth Chair of the local NAACP initiate a weekly picket line at the downtown Woolworth's in solidarity with courageous students who were risking their lives to be served at lunch counters through out the South. The weekly picketing was a broadly inclusive act of solidarity that included the broadest possible spectrum of the community that an inspired 16 year-old could imagine and included several students who had also heard Dr. King speak, strategize and dream human rights, social justice and personal responsibility.
The important and concluding point here is that the entire AFSC experience had and I believe continues to have a powerful resonating impact on how I see the world, how I live in the world and what it is that I have tried to seed in terms of our collective survival and future on, what Buckminster Fuller calls, "Spaceship Earth" and what Dr. King in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964, refers to as the, "World House."
This momentous Centennial celebration provides an opportunity to reflect on the continuing and resonating impact of my early AFSC experience.
Finally, I would say that the 1958 Asilomar youth gathering inspired and supported a vision of hope and possibility rooted in mutual respect, deep listening, honest dialogue and the exchange of wisdom and solutions between generations, across neighborhoods, nationalities, religions and various other "socially constructed" divides.
Thank you SO much for this opportunity on the occasion of the historic Centennial Anniversary Celebration!
Sending You All a Deep Bow of Gratitude
BELVIE ROOKS is co-founder of Growing a Global Heart with her beloved late Dedan Gills. She is also one of the Producers of House on Coco Road, an important documentary about US foreign policy in the Caribbean. She is a writer, educator and producer whose published works have appeared in a number of books and anthologies including, Ecological and Social Healing: Multicultural Women's Voices (Routledge Press Forthcoming 2016); The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, Alice Walker (Scribner); The Power of Love, Fran Grace, (Inner Pathway Publications, Forthcoming 2016); Global Chorus: 365 Voices On The Future of the Planet (RMB Books); My Soul is a Witness: African American Women's Spirituality,(Beacon Press); She is also featured in the Educational DVD Series for the award-winning PBS documentary, Journey of the Universe by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. She was a Segment Producer for the Fox Family Series "Courage" hosted by Danny Glover. In 2002, "Courage" was named by TV Guide as one of the "Top 10 inspirational shows" for the season.