LESLIE CRISS: MLK dream kept alive through years

By Leslie Criss / NEMS Daily Journal

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

I was a child in the ‘60s. I lived on a quiet street in small-town Mississippi. We knew our neighbors; our neighbors knew us. We played outside on sultry summer nights until our parents, who feared not for our safety, called us to supper.
But even in my beloved hometown among those people I knew, there were pockets of darkness I learned to fear.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

In a small store just off Poplar Street, my friend Betsy and I spent much time and a fair amount of money, especially during the summer.
The proprietor could have been anyone’s grandmother and her kindness, we assumed, reached out to all. One single bare bulb hung from the ceiling, offering only scant light.
A bright red metal icebox filled with Coca-Colas and other soft drinks rested just under the bulb.
We were offered free rein behind the counter where candy and bubblegum waited.
One afternoon I mentioned that a friend of my family – “a very nice lady” – lived a few houses behind the store.
Suddenly the store owner reached out and whacked me, hard, on my upper arm. “Don’t you ever call a black person a lady.” Except she didn’t say black person. She said a word my parents didn’t allow in our house.
I pedaled my bicycle home that day and never went back. Nor did I tell anyone about what had happened. Not for years.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

Around the corner from our house was a dry cleaners. They also sold ice-cold bottled “co-colas” and foot-long sticks of cinnamon bubblegum. If you were conservative in your chewing, the stick could last all day.
Often, we’d drop in, plop our coins on the counter and order a cold one.
One afternoon I walked in just about closing time. No one was behind the counter, but I heard noises coming from out back.
I glanced through the open door and saw the owner beating with a broom handle an old black man who worked there. As he continued to lift the stick into the air, he muttered the word “hate” several times.
The owner’s wife saw me and said, “Sometimes you just have to beat a …” Again, she used a word not allowed in my family’s house.
I ran home as fast as I could.

“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.
Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

Even now, we have a long way to go if we are to realize the dream of a man who would have celebrated his 82nd birthday yesterday had he not been assassinated in 1968.
We should still dream of a day we will be judged by the content of our character, rather than our skin colors, our nationalities, our political persuasions, our religious beliefs, our sexual orientations.
Now seems a good time to make a commitment to continue working to make that dream a reality.
A tall order that. But we are called to no less.

Contact Leslie Criss at leslie.criss@journalinc.com or (662) 678-1584.