OKLAHOMA CITY – When I was a boy in the 1960s, our father instructed my four sisters and me concerning the movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led: “This family believes in the Constitution of the United States. We support the dignity of every man, and his right to live free, under Almighty God.”
My parents revered the man, who spoke in Christ-like terms such as this:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [people] willing to be co-workers with God.”
MLK preached dreams and possibilities which I saw come true in our family and many neighbors: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
The preacher’s policy vision was shared at the March on Washington:
“We have … come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
Before President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating the Martin Luther King holiday in 1983, he commented, “Traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Reagan believed if we lived by such fundamentals, we could reach the time, as Dr. King said, when “All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’ ”
In 2013, in a commentary posted on CapitolBeatOK, then-Speaker of the Oklahoma House T.W. Shannon reflected, “Every time a new law or regulation is passed, citizens have a little less freedom. We live in a society where nearly 64 million Americans receive daily food, housing, education and healthcare assistance from the federal government. At the state level, bureaucrats take your tax dollars and match them with federal grants to expand marginally useful programs that create more dependence on government.
“Where is the courage to proclaim that incentivizing dependence on government is offensive, soul crushing and devastating to our children and our economy? Where is the courage to say that the best social program is a good job that breeds independence and human dignity?”
I’ve not been a consistent fan of Barack Obama, whose term as president will end at noon on Friday, when his successor takes the oath of office. He had memorable moments in his farewell address last week, including this (my favorite):
“[R]egardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder; to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
To which I say, Amen.
Freedom rings hereabouts on the day designated in MLK’s honor (this year on Monday, January 16; his birthday was Jan. 15, 1929).
A Mass in MLK’s honor was held at Corpus Christi Catholic Church Saturday evening. On Monday, a prayer breakfast will take place at Rose State College, seeking “a tapestry of unity,’ under the bi-partisan leadership of former state Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, and former state Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City.
Then, there is a silent march, culminating in ringing of a liberty bell at the Oklahoma History Center.
From across the state and region, they will come to downtown Oklahoma City for Monday’s parade in his memory: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, civic clubs and church groups, labor unions and small businesses; politicians.
Attendees can expect to see familiar faces from the Northwest Classen High School Junior ROTC contingent, likely carrying a massive American flag; the bands from Frederick A. Douglass and Star Spencer High Schools, the Peace House and scores of others will step off at the designated hour. Along Robinson Avenue, equestrian units – the heirs of black cowboys of centuries past — will patiently await their turn.
One year, I traded stories with a rider atop a chestnut horse, laughing over the reasons “they always put the horses at the back of the parade.”
Some years it is bitterly cold, others it is pleasant. This year, marchers will have decent weather, temperature-wise, after a bitterly cold weekend.
For the 2012 parade, the weather was cool even as the sun warmed us.
After the hubbub of the parade, I drank coffee on Hudson Avenue, sitting “al fresco,” looking east as the sun settled behind me. It grew colder as shadows lengthened.
Hot liquid countered the chill. A rider passed by atop a beautiful dark horse. Tall in the saddle in his black Stetson, the cowpoke advanced north, headed to where his EastSide Roundup Club had parked horse trailers. With him, in front, seated upright and protected in the older man’s arms, was a little girl, pretty in pink, her face combining joy with wide-eyed concern. She should be old enough to be in school, by now.
Unexpectedly, the scene before me became a brief, personal MLK parade. Two dozen riders passed by in groups of two or three, laughing and waving back at the coffee drinker. They got the joke, passing in stately review – the horses high-stepping for a crowd of one. Most stayed in the street, and cars halted at corner stop signs to let them advance.
A few riders passed through the grass bordering Hudson northwest of the federal building. One young man, hatless, stopped directly across from me, then like an Olympic champion took his steed on a sideways canter for 40 yards, straightening the course at a street’s edge.
There was no camera, so memory suffices for a unique, Oklahoma kind of moment, watching black cowboys after a long parade on a good day, peaceful, meaningful and tender.
I honor King and remember my father, a man who worked and lived in a context, and a time of consequence, yearning for the day all Americans would be judged by “the content of their character.”
This essay is revised and updated from a commentary first posted on January 20, 2014. Pat McGuigan’s email is [email protected] .