The man was cloaked in immense dignity. He stuttered when excited, a defect nearly all the toughs in the tobacco fields were careful NOT to notice.
For this reason, so I thought, Mr. Black was mostly silent, and his proud silence was part of his dignity – that and the way he moved, purposefully, confidently, powerfully, like a panther sliding noiselessly through the night. I was wrong about that. His was a silence that shouted wordlessly, and it was an attribute of nearly all the black men of that time.
Fishing in the Connecticut River near the canal across from the Basin, every so often you would see a solitary black man, pole in hand, fingers reading his line, studying the light on the water in an inlet where perch took their rest, standing straight and immobile, planted like a tree, inscrutable as a blue sky, and as patient. This patience and silence was his secret. Fish do not like noise. Like monks, they thrive in silence, which has a voice of its own. It was there I first heard that sundering word, shouted by some hidden coward, followed by laughter. The black fisherman did not flinch.
Six years later, Martin Luther King, a refugee of the tobacco fields in Glastonbury, shattered the silence. To be exact, he gave one hundred years of emancipatory silence a tongue in his “I Have a Dream” speech, in the course of which he said, “But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” His discipline was extraordinary; his dignity flowed from him like mighty waters.
It was dignity – the dignity of little children – that bowled over Governor George Wallace as he stood, a ridged, red-faced, blathering racist in the school room door. It was the difference between the dignity of black people and the tremulous white politicians who loosed snarling dogs upon them that brought racism in Birmingham, Alabama to its knees after eight days of protest in 1963.
I was twenty when the fierce dignity of children and young blacks set upon by dogs finally shook the racist lithosphere in Alabama.
Thinking that even a rabid racist would not set dogs loose on children, Martin Luther King early in May filled the streets with young black children ranging in age from six to eighteen. Bull Conner, Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, set dogs upon them, and by nightfall, true to his word – “We are not going to stand for this in Birmingham. And if necessary we will fill the jail full and we don’t care whose toes we step on” – he had arrested 959 young blacks.
The next day, this happened:
After eight days of unflinching protest, Connor quietly agreed to desegregate lunch counters and fitting rooms, to remove “Whites Only” signs from drinking fountains and restrooms and to hire more African-Americans. It was the innate dignity of blacks, the rank injustices exposed by news cameras and the nervous merchants of Alabama that had routed the police power in Birmingham.
Birmingham Mayor Art Hanes railed against the merchants; they were “gutless traitors.” And Connor fumed, “I would have beaten King if those damn merchants... hadn’t given in.”
Now then, concerning the “N” word. Today the word once used to bludgeon blacks lives on, an artifact of hatred and injustice. It is a grave offense to the dignity of blacks. And for that reason, it should be retired from public use. No expunging of the word from books, so like museums, is necessary. It is important to remember injustice and hatred clearly, unclouded by romantic revisionism. No law is needed to do this. Merchants who peddle the word should remember the dogs, the fire hoses, Bull Connor’s frothing hatred, Art Hanes’ impotent boast -- and Martin Luther King’s racist shattering dignity. That word should stick in the throats of anyone who uses it like the iron jaws of a police dog.
Get rid of it.