It has been a remarkable occasion, this week of tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. that closes today with the first official holiday in his honor. Perhaps in years to come, as it becomes merely another pause in the workday calendar, King's Birthday will degenerate into an excuse for sales extravaganzas and three-day weekends. But this year it has been something rare and invigorating, not merely a celebration of the greatest American of the century but also an opportunity to recall his incalculably beneficent influence on our private and public lives.
Nothing has been more moving than the pictures on television of schoolchildren -- black and white alike, but black especially -- honoring King in classroom ceremonies, assembly-hall pageants and schoolyard parades. To the younger children he must seem a distant figure, yet there can be no question that he is a vivid presence in their lives, an embodiment of moral authority in a world that, even to the young, must seem oddly deficient in it. There can be no greater tribute to the gift he gave his country than the unaffected, unself-conscious ease with which children of all colors and beliefs unite to praise him and his works.
For those of us who are older, in particular those of us who were in the South when King undertook his historic crusade, the celebration has more complex and ambiguous overtones. I presume to speak only for myself on this, but I am sure that for millions of Americans who remember Montgomery and Greensboro, Selma and Birmingham, Albany and Chicago, this week has brought a flood of reminiscence: some of it having to do with great public events that we participated in or witnessed, some with matters of personal awakening and traumatic self-discovery.
It takes a real effort of memory to recall what the South was like in those days. As L.P. Hartley wrote in "The Go-Between": "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." To a 9-year-old boy moving from the North to the rural Upper South in 1948, it was a shock to discover that human beings of a different color were consigned to servile positions, that they lived in crude shacks, that to all intents and purposes they had none of the rights I so casually enjoyed. Yet it is more in the nature of a 9-year-old to conform than to challenge, so I accepted the customs of the country. As I grew into my teens the discomfort at the back of my conscience nagged me more and more, but still I assumed that society was immutable, that what we had was what would ever be; few others, white or black, assumed otherwise.
But nothing is immutable. When King went to Montgomery to assume leadership of the bus boycott Rosa Parks had so boldly initiated, the old order to which we had all so complacently or despairingly clung began to change; there would be no going back. Yet what is important to remember -- what the young may have great difficulty understanding -- is that change did not occur rapidly, either in society at large or in the minds of its inhabitants. It took many blacks, especially those living in the isolated and terrorized countryside, a long time to come around to King's message of nonviolent militance; it took many whites, myself certainly included, every bit as long to progress from a smug acceptance of the status quo to a comprehension of the urgency and inevitability of what King, in his unexampled oratory, urged us to do.
I heard that oratory for the first time -- and the only time in King's actual presence -- at the University of North Carolina sometime after 1957; I recall being moved by it, but not being wholly converted to the cause or galvanized into action. That did not come until the spring of 1960, a few months after the sit-ins inspired by King had begun 50 miles to the West in Greensboro. At first the sit-ins provoked a mixed reaction in me; as a columnist for the student newspaper I supported their objectives but -- like too many others, known collectively as "southerners of good will" -- I feared that confrontational tactics would lead to violence.
But then one night I was walking along Franklin Street, where a picket line in front of the Carolina Theater was protesting its refusal to admit blacks to showings of "Porgy and Bess." Suddenly a battered car sped by. Something was thrown at the protesters, obscenities were yelled, and the worst obscenity of all -- "Nigger!" -- split the night. I was flabbergasted; suddenly the exact truth had come home to me. I rushed back to the newspaper, of which I was by then editor, and wrote a brief, angry, emotional editorial. Under the headline "Is This the Face of Chapel Hill?" I described the incident, then asked the community if such icy discrimination and demented hatred were indeed the face of a town noted for, and proud of, its diversity and tolerance.
It was the first of dozens of editorials I was to write on civil rights and race relations in the year to come. I am under no illusions now, as I may have been then, that they were of much good to anyone except me, and though they are stowed away in a box in the attic I would not dream of reading them now for fear of being terminally humiliated by their prose. But I was proud of them then, and I am proud today of the young man who wrote them. It was my enormous good fortune to be at the right place in the right time: to be young, to have found a great cause, to be doing nothing of moment on its behalf, perhaps, but to be doing it with all my heart.
I tell this story not out of any sense of its importance but because each of us has a story and this seems to be a day for telling them: for witnessing, as Martin Luther King Jr. would have put it. This story is my testament that Martin Luther King Jr. changed my life. It is a testament that every living American can, and should, make on this day. Of only one other American of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, can the same statement be made, and even then there is a crucial difference. Roosevelt changed our society and our economy and our government, but King changed us. King opened our hearts. Some opened more willingly than others, and some may still have received only the faintest breath of his spirit, and, yes, it is essential on this day to speak as much about how far we have to go as about how far we have come. But this certainly must be said: Because of him we are better people.