Dr. King and the ‘Maladjusted’ Prophets

Protesters picketed the racially segregated Glen Echo Park in 1960, near Washington, D.C..
Pacifica radio is playing speeches from Dr. King all day. It’s the best tribute I can think of. It’s like an all day seminar on the very best of American history and religious nonviolence.

The earliest recorded speech in the Pacifica archives is from June 4, 1957, when Dr. King delivered a speech to students at the University of California at Berkeley at the invitation of the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association. His topic was “The Power of Nonviolence”, and in relatively few words King movingly described the principle of nonviolent resistance and the ideals he sought to uphold by using it in his movement. The speech’s conclusion has a famous section on the biblical prophets and “maladjustment.” He says:

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word “maladjusted.” Now we all should seek to live a well—adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generation, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

My community e-list today for the Columbia Heights neighborhood has a reflection by one of our local heroes, Kenneth Barnes, founder of ROOT Inc,dedicated to ending gun violence, recalling segregated D.C. He writes:

I was born and raised in northeast Washington, DC, in a section known as Trinidad.   I grew up on Owen Place, a street between Montello Ave and Trinidad Ave, NE.  My family moved to Owen Place in 1945, and, ironically, was the first African American family to move onto the block.

I attended Wilson elementary school on the corner of 6th and K St, NE.  Wheatley Elementary is on the corner of Neal St. and Montello Ave, NE, within two blocks walking distance of my family home.  Yet I had to catch a bus to go to Wilson Elementary over a mile from home and by pass Wheatley every morning.

As a child, I would wonder why but it was one of those mysteries not clearly defined by my family to me and it seemed as a child to be no big deal.  My family was from the south and shielded the inequities of segregation and the evils of racism from my brother, my sister, and me.  Racism and segregation was a part of everyday life accepted by families like mine from the south as part of their existence.

I remember being in the first integrated class of Wheatley when I entered the 5th grade and still was not totally aware of the segregated society that I had been a part of.   I remember studying history and not really seeing or being able to identify with Black people, because all history at that time being taught consisted of the history of western civilization and culture or American (White) history.  We learned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,   Davey Crockett and Wyatt Earp were big frontier heroes.  Even God was a white man with a flowing white beard and hair to match, and Jesus Christ was a younger white man with a darker beard and long hair down to his shoulders.

I succinctly remember one black person being taught as being a hero during the American Revolution, and his name was Crispus Attacks.  I remember wondering at the time what made him a hero and why was he singled out.  He happened to be in a crowd of people that were shot by English soldiers and he happened to be black.  I never could figure out what was heroic about that nor, at the time, did I understand the significance of why he, of all the heroic Black people throughout history, was singled out and given to us (Black children) as being a hero.

This naivete of thinking remained with me up until my high school years.  I remember about a black lady refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  I remember about sit-ins and protests, about Medgar Evars being murdered, about a bombing of a church, and civil rights workers being killed.  Even with all that atrocity my most vivid memory is of a remarkable man, a preacher, who began to become prominent as a spokesperson against all of the evils entwined with bigotry, segregation, and racism.  He spoke eloquently yet forcefully and firmly.  He spoke with a gentleness of conviction, and his powerful message of non violent confrontation as a means of battling racism began to resonate throughout America.

He stood up for us as African Americans perhaps as no other before him.  He was, to me, our savior, our Christ.  He led marches and protests against racist and segregation against some of the vilest and most ruthless people in this county.  He was beaten, stabbed, locked up, attacked by dogs, and water hosed.  Yet he seemed to rise, larger than life, above it all.

And he became my first hero.  He opened my eyes like no one before me had.  I began to listen to his speeches, enthralled by his every word.

I remember this great man being able to call a march on Washington and give perhaps the most magnificent speech ever delivered in the history of mankind, with the entire nation as well as the entire world enthralled. …

I encourage you to spend some time today being discipled by the essays and speeches of Dr. King. Listen to just one today and let the words take root in your mind and heart.

Duke Ellington’s D.C.: ‘What we Could Not Say Openly, We Expressed in Music’

Duke Ellington in front of the Apollo Theatre, New York, 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon.

Last week I watched the 2000 PBS documentary Duke Ellington’s Washington. It’s a great way to learn the history of D.C. at the turn of the century – especially the Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, and Shaw neighborhoods around where I live. I highly recommend it for viewing! Here’s a short description of the video:

“Before the Harlem Renaissance, Duke Ellington’s Washington was the social and cultural capital of Black America. From 1900 to 1920, it was this country’s largest African American community. Anchored by Howard University and federal government jobs, this community became a magnet for African American intellectuals and sent a stream of shining talents to the nation for generations. It developed a prosperous black middle class which forged a strong society of churches, newspapers, businesses and civic institutions. Its businesses were black owned and run; its buildings, designed, built and financed by blacks; its entertainment, by and for African Americans. This was a proud and elegant community that flourished despite, or perhaps even because, of Jim Crow, the oppressive segregation that forced blacks to create their own separate destiny.”

The New Yorker (May 17, 2010) also has a great essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont titled Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington’s music and race in America. Pierpont reviews Harvey G. Cohen’s recently released book “Duke Ellington’s America.” Both the book and Pierpont’s essay are an interesting way to examine race in America through classical American music – jazz. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

“What we could not say openly, we expressed in music,” Ellington wrote in the British magazine Rhythm, in 1931, trying to explain the Negro musical tradition that had grown up in America, music “forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.” All his life, Ellington gave the impression of having been unscathed by racism, either in his early years—color, he said, was never even mentioned in his parents’ home—or during the long professional decades when it defined almost every move he made: where he could play his music, who could come to listen to it, whether he could stay in a hotel or attend another musician’s show, and where (or whether) he could find something to eat when the show was over. The orchestra made its first Southern tour just after its return from England, in 1933, travelling (thanks to Mills) in supremely insulated style: two private Pullman cars for sleeping and dining, and a separate baggage car for the elaborate wardrobe, scenery, and lights required to present a show more dazzling than any that most of the sleepy little towns where they made their stops had ever seen. Ellington made a special effort to perform for black audiences, even when it meant that the band added a midnight show in a place where it had performed earlier that night exclusively for whites. Reports from both racial groups were that the players outdid themselves; it is difficult to know where they felt they had more to prove.

Segregation was hardly peculiar to the South, of course, any more than it was limited, in New York, to the Cotton Club and its ilk. The down-and-dirty Kentucky Club had been no different: even without thugs at the door, there was an unspoken citywide dictate about where the different races belonged. The only exceptions were the “Black and Tans,” the few Harlem clubs that permitted casual racial mixing, and to which Ellington seems to have been paying tongue-in-cheek tribute with the not-quite-meshing themes of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This was the first number played, after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at Ellington’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, in January, 1943, although the piece sounded very different from his twenties hit: taken at a slower tempo, with extended solos, it was twice its original length—so deliberative it seemed a kind of statement—and showed off the burnished power of Ellington’s forties band.

Read the whole essay here.