Before MLK and "Strange Fruit"
Next Monday, citizens celebrate the life of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. His life was shorter than most, shot dead in Memphis at thirty-nine years old. In just forty years, though, MLK dramatically changed our country. His leadership and courage (and political genius) turned the country's conscience against racial segregation and brutality. The reverberations of his life still echo in our lives.
It's easy to forget MLK Day. My life next Monday will look the same as the Monday before and the Monday after. We are prone to forget what earlier decades were like. That it's not always been 2014. This is why we celebrate days like MLK Day and President's Day and Memorial Day.
MLK Day helps us remember that everyone of my days are entirely unlike the days before Martin Luther King, Jr. My life would not be the same without his life. My friends, my neighborhood, even my family would look very different were it not for his legacy.
Before Martin Luther King, Jr., America was a terrible place for millions of people. Utterly terrible. MLK Day is not just about the end of segregated water fountains and school systems, as important as those changes were. MLK Day is also about the end of water cannons and burning crosses and church bombings and public lynchings. Before MLK, America was not a land of the free, but a land of state-supported oppression, violence, and willful ignorance. King had the courage and voice to call America to come clean and live up to her ideal.
In 1939, Billie Holiday famously performed the song, "Strange Fruit." Written by a Jewish man about photographs of lynchings, it would become one her most important recordings. (You can read more about the song on Wikipedia.) As you prepare for Monday, listen to what America once was. Consider how your life has changed. Then, thank God for the life and courage of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.