EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to mark the unveiling of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Rita Dove is a former U.S. Poet Laureate—the first African American to hold that position. She is currently commonwealth professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
It was my 11th birthday, and we had driven from Ohio to my relatives in D.C. so that my father could join the march. I remember all these grown-ups crowding around the tiny TV in some cousin's dining room, and I slipped onto the floor and crawled right up to the screen, trying to find my dad among the throngs on the Mall. The excitement—jubilation and fear in equal measure—was palpable in that room; I didn't even feel resentful at having my birthday usurped because I sensed something larger was happening, something that involved the entire nation.
What memories do you have of King’s assassination?
I was in 10th grade, in German class, when the principal came on the PA system with the announcement. Our teacher, Frau Ilse White—a tiny lady we used to laugh at because she tried to make us sing German folk songs and march around the room, like children—broke into tears. And our class seemed to dissolve; nobody jumped up or said anything—it was more of an internal crumbling. One girl in the back row fainted, just keeled over sideways and hit the floor. Frau White, who had never accepted any kind of excuses for missing her lessons, told us we could leave and attend the impromptu assembly in the gymnasium. I would have preferred continuing to conjugate German verbs, anything to keep reality at bay until I could grieve alone; but it was clear that I was expected to join the mass anguish, so I went—and remember nothing further.
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
Not directly, although his teachings have infused my life, and his example helped me learn how to be brave. I grew up in Ohio, where civil-rights accomplishments had already begun to accelerate before Martin Luther King appeared. In hindsight, we know that many people, black and white, were instrumental in changing the Jim Crow status quo on all levels. Around the time when I was born in 1952, my own father had been able to push beyond what had been possible before, when he became the first African-American research chemist in the rubber-and-tire industry. No doubt, Martin Luther King galvanized forces against racism in the South and with his unique charisma and non-violent credo rose to such national and international prominence that he became the voice and face of both protest and progress. I was about to enter my teenage years when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and I remember a huge feeling of pride that a black man, one of us, was honored with what we had learned in school was the most important award in the world.
But by that time, and in no small part thanks to my father’s tenacity in fulfilling his own dream against many odds—not to mention the increasing educational opportunities in much of the North—I had already begun to imagine I could reach the lofty goals I dared to set for myself in spite of my race.
Is there a song that for you evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
I always loved the most obvious and famous one: “We Shall Overcome."
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Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Of course. We need to remain vigilant. Plenty of people still carry a lot of baggage in terms of racial and ethnic prejudices, even if our institutions have achieved a degree of color-blindness unfathomable five decades ago.
But other serious equality issues remain, on both the personal and the institutional level. Were Martin Luther King alive today with his big heart and incorruptible intellect, I could well imagine that he would not mind if one of his seminal “I Have A Dream” sentences were adjusted to match a more contemporary civil-rights issue: Where he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” I would add nowadays: “I have a dream that we all will one day live in a nation where people will not be judged by their sexual orientation but by the content of their character.” It makes me sad to see that there are black ministers and black churches who are at the forefront of bigotry where lesbian and gay rights are concerned.
Equality and self-determination should never be divided in the name of religious or ideological fervor. It makes me furious to hear haters of all skin colors—especially Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists—deride other people because of their different beliefs and lifestyles.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins