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Thursday, April 3, 2008

MLK Mountaintop Speech: I never had heard the part about the sneezing

Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech : NPR: "

"In 1958, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged woman while autographing copies of his first book in a Harlem department store. The tip of the blade came so close to his aorta that his doctor said a sneeze would have killed King. While he was recovering, King received a letter from a teenage girl, who wrote, 'I'm so glad you didn't sneeze.'

"Ten years later, in the speech at the Mason Temple, King took up that theme, saying if he had sneezed, he would not have been around in 1960, when students began sitting-in at lunch counters, or in subsequent years to see the freedom riders, the march in Selma and other key events in the civil rights movement.

"The passage brought the crowd to its feet."

I wrote in my other blog today I feel--sometimes--that I am part of a Generation Failed. And listening to this story on the way to work this morning, suddenly I was 12 years old again, a political victim of a presidential assassination (barely eight,then), of a war fought with bloody thoroughness on my TV every night--fought both in a strange jungle halfway across the world, and fought in our streets and college campuses and livingrooms--of a racial struggle that burned cities I knew, like Detroit and Cleveland, of a cultural, generational, gender struggle-filled mess of a decade.

And then, just when I didn't think I could stand hearing Walter Cronkite tell me how many more dead in Vietnam at night on TV, two blows from which we 12-year-olds have never recovered: Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy. Dreams dead, twice.

I keep hearing Barak Obama compared to those grownups of the '60s. I don't know--maybe so, but when I hear it, my blood runs cold. Because I knew what happened to those fine men, and the part of me that froze at age 12, re-freezes now. And there's my failure to the generation--and perhaps others of a certain age will agree, or not: a disinclination to engage. I just can't bring myself to get involved. I. Just. Can't.

Hearing the story of the Mountaintop speech, I got goosebumps--and felt beyond sad, beyond empty...what would the world be if MLK had dodged not just the letter opener, but the bullet too? What if Bobby had not walked though that kitchen? What if we 12s had not been beaten up by a decade of seeing our brothers march off to war, our sisters protesting at college, our parents torn apart by it all?

Wow: I was just driving to work, and found myself trying to figure out the sociological screwed-up-ness of a a couple generations. I failed at that too. Though I felt a little better after a cup of coffee, I've still mourned Martin all day.

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