Friday, April 4, 2008

Dogwood Afternoon

At the time, I didn't know much about Martin Luther King. I knew who he was. I liked his name. I guess I knew his story, but not in a way that drew me in.

I missed the March on Washington. I wasn't a marcher. But I didn't even see it on the news. I was out on the west coast, going to school, and a guy I knew who was from Michigan and who probably had never been in the south in his life, told me, the next day, that he had really been stirred by King's speech at the march. Later, I saw re-runs of the speech on television and I saw what he meant.

That was when I first took note of the man. As a speaker, he was clearly in the spirit, which is not something you can say about many preachers. But, clearly, King was. An American saint, right up there with Lincoln.

The night he died, my wife and I had been invited by a guy we knew, and his wife, to go to the Playboy Club in downtown Atlanta for a meal and some middle class titillation. As we were driving home, we heard the news on the car radio. We talked about it for a while.

Five days later, I stood in the crowd that watched the mule-drawn wagon pass by with his mortal remains. Back then, I worked in downtown Atlanta, two blocks from the procession route, so I brought my camera to the office that day and went out at the appointed time to see what I could see.

For a while there was nothing. The procession was late. Crowds of people lined the street on both sides, waiting restlessly. Then, before we saw anything, we heard it - a kind of far off hubbub. And then we saw it, coming toward us like a floodtide, held in its course only by the banks of spectators, on both sides of the street - a river of people.

The street full of people moved by us at a stately pace for a long time before we saw the wagon with the coffin, in the middle of the river, swept along in the flood, like some mournful Call me Ishmael on the bounding main.

When the tide had passed, I stood around looking for something to take a picture of. I saw some young black guys standing in the shade of a dogwood tree in full bloom. I took one picture.

It became one of my favorite pictures, although I wonder if I would have felt the same way if it had been a bunch of white guys, standing there.

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