Tucked away in a corner of the apartment, my grandmother keeps a portrait. It’s a beautifully simple piece, the image of a face she knew for just four hours years ago painted on black velvet. It was a gift, made for her by an inmate she met while volunteering at the prison. For years it adorned a wall in her office, reminding her of the commitment she made to fight injustice.
But this week, it at last represents the realization of her hopes and the hopes of countless others like her. It explains why she, by her own admission, went through “half a box” of tissues on election night. It explains why her oldest son and his wife not only brought their daughter to the polls but also let her push the button in the voting booth. It explains why her youngest daughter drove two hours home from monitoring vote challenges to rush her family to Grant Park.
It’s a portrait of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the late 1960s, my grandmother served as the program chairperson of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council. Located in an affluent, exclusively white community northeast of Detroit, the council worried about things like fair housing — which, considering the time and place, just wasn’t a priority for most of her neighbors.
Searching for an influential voice for the council’s concerns, my grandmother contacted several well-known figures in late 1967, asking them to consider giving a speech in Grosse Pointe the following spring. To her surprise, King accepted the invitation.
My grandparents and the rest of the council were not popular for bringing King to their segregated town. They, like many of their neighbors, were fortunate to live in a safe community on modest means — and they were white. But unlike many of their neighbors, my grandparents weren’t comfortable being complacent with that worldview. And for that, they were targeted by a malicious few.
The initial, contentious battle with the school board over booking Grosse Pointe High School’s “gymnatorium” for the speech soon seemed tame. My grandmother, who was a housewife at the time, participated wide-eyed in meetings about riot-control. Hate mail and threatening phone calls began flooding into my grandparents’ home, exacerbated by a group that publicized the names, addresses and phone numbers of those connected with the event under the guise of guarding the “tradition” of the community.
While my grandparents could take the community’s rancor at first, it became almost unbearable just a week before King’s speech. One afternoon as my grandmother tended to her youngest, the phone rang. When she answered, a threatening voice snarled, “You think your kids are in school, don’t you? Well, we’ve got them!” Panicked, she rushed to the elementary school, where she found her four school-age children safe in their classrooms.
It was at that point that my grandparents wondered how much more they could take — a question that continued to plague them as the preparations ended and the anxious crowd gathered on March 14, 1968. My grandmother later wrote of the fears she battled as they drove to pick up King: “Inwardly, I was scared for the chief [of police] because of what he was facing; for Dr. King because he didn’t know what he was facing; and for us because we knew but were going on.”
That evening, having passed the more than 200 angry picketers and rode into the school with the police chief on his lap to shield him, King addressed the 3,200 who packed the gym to hear him speak. A handful of hecklers interrupted his speech with hostile shouts of “TRAITOR!” which was just a portion of the harassment that King later called “the worst heckling [he had] ever encountered.”
But he also received a standing ovation when he entered the room that lasted several minutes. And to counter the heckling, a largely appreciative audience interrupted him with applause 32 times.
Three weeks later, King was assassinated. But because my grandmother had been so moved in just those few hours with him, she still wanted the chance to march with him — so she did. Despite the violence that erupted after King’s death, she traveled to Atlanta and walked beside his casket and the thousands of people who, like her, had been moved by King’s dream to sacrifice what they could to fight the injustice that pervaded their society.
To my grandparents and the others like them who devoted themselves to the Civil Rights Movement, 40 years hardly seems long enough to heal the wounds. And when I looked once more at the portrait of King with my grandmother this weekend, knowing that it had been just days since we had voted for our first African-American president, I realized that, thanks to those who fought and continue to fight, I could never fully understand.
And for that, I am grateful.
Emmarie Huetteman is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.