It hardly seems possible that 10 years have elapsed since I stood at the doorway of a shack in rural Florida listening to the views of a black woman named Hattie about the Martin Luther King assassination. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
Hattie had been raised in Alabama on a farm that she said belonged to George Wallace's father, and she felt that John Kennedy was God's gift to the colored folks (her words). Yes, she'd cried and mourned at the passing of JFK, but she had no sympathy for Dr. King. He was a troublemaker and ungrateful to the white people for the help they'd given the coloreds.
I was too shocked to understand, and to see the irony of my trying to champion a black man to one for whom he had given his life.
Minnie lived down the dirt road from Hattie. Both of them were seasonal farm workers. Their stoop labor - the weeding, thinning and picking - put tomatoes, celery, lettuce and potatoes in the produce section of the supermarket. They worked for the minimum wage, as they were needed when the weather allowed. No work meant no income.
Minnie was home the day of the King funeral. She'd decided to watch the ceremonies on television and invited me to join her. Like Hattie's, Minnie's place had no running water, no electricity. An extension cord was strung from her parents' house to hers, dangerously close to the outhouse door.
For a long while Minnie and I sat in silence, guided by the picture before us, the network commentary and our own private thoughts. I remembered a day in 1963 coming back from the World's Fair in New York. Dr. King's Lincoln Memorial speech was on the car radio. I'd never heard preaching like that, and I was moved.
A summer or two later I spent my free time between the covers of books written by men named Baldwin, Wright, Lomax, Malcolm X and, of course, King. As an undergraduate in Boston I'd marched with Dr. King. Though his speech was long forgotten, the feeling that accompanied those lost words was still exciting - the feeling that it was right to be there. I'd feel that way again in a cndlelight procession around the White House and at the births of my two sons.
I'm an avid newspaper reader, and it seemed like I'd followed Dr. King in an out of jail and confrontations for years. My own brief letter of tribute had just been published in the local daily, a first for me.
Atlanta was the site of my VISTA training. Dr. King wasn't in on the day I visited the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. My attempt to attend services at Dr. King's church failed when I got lost and arrived too late.
And now he was dead, and Minnie was offering me rice with brown gravy and biscuits for lunch. We drank Kool-Aid, and it was one of life's memorable meals. As the scene shifted to the cemetery, Minnie cried. I hadn't yet learned how.
Those were the days of growing into adulthood. Dr. King walked with me through a spiritual adolescence. Death took him, just as maturity strips us of idols and heroes. Dr. King turned out to be mortal, but it didn't change what he believed or accomplished.
His legacy was transformed briefly into the peace moratoriums, and lives today in the woman's movement and, most of all, in the men who worked with him - Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy - and in his wife and father.
Life was much simpler 10 years ago. I had the freedom, the lack of commitments that enabled me to march, to demonstrate, to volunteer for VISTA, to be committed. It's much harder now to live my beliefs. A family man has obligations and hundreds of excuses for not doing the things that once seemed so natural, so right.
Hattie's and Minnie's shacks are long condemned and torn down. There is no news of Hattie. Minnie lost her son to a brain tumor, and her mother, Miss Liz, is dead. The doctors called it something else, but 40 years of migrant farm work should have been recorded as cause of death.
Minnie is doing well. She trained through the vocational program and apprenticed as a chef's helper. She's been out of the fields and into cooking for the past eight years. She has her own apartment in town, with hot water, electricity, a bathroom and a lot more that I grew up taking for granted. Dr. King would be proud of her.