Mr. President, I live on a mountain, in the Green Mountain National Forest, and our house is surrounded by woods. On some days I can hear the faint sound of my neighbor’s chainsaw as he gets going on next season’s fire wood. I see my other neighbor’s truck pass along the driveway through the trees. Gary and Donna’s dog may bark long enough for me to hear it on a frigid morning. When I go out into the yard to get wood for the stove, I see mostly sky, mostly the frozen grass or snow, and the white birch leaning over the lower pond. Nothing much is happening up here. A breeze blows smoke across the hillside clearing. The chickens are scrabbling around in their pen.
Today is Martin Luther King day. As I do every year, I observe the day in a mostly private fashion, partially because I live far from town, partially because I am a teacher and I have papers to read, and it’s a day to catch up and if I’m lucky, find a few moments for reverence.
For MLK Day I have developed a little ritual. I watch King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” available in its entirety, magically, on YouTube. I read over passages of “A Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” On either side of the day itself the week before and in the weeks after I play recordings of King’s speeches to my students. One year we listened to part of Kings “Drum Major Instinct” speech. Another year we listened to “Give Us the Ballot.” This year we listened, in parts, to King’s 1957 speech, “Loving your Enemies.”
I require that my students listen, not watch. That is to say, they put their heads down and close their eyes. They must hear it, and take that voice into their hearts. It takes practice and it takes repetition to really listen. Sometimes they miss it, but over their years in the school they begin to understand and feel a little power of that voice, as it speaks to us over the “vistas of time.” I have asked them to consider King’s statement: “I submit to you, a man who has not discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” And I think about how I might further impress upon my students the fact that the battles King waged are far from over; that there is still much to be done before we can say we have made of our nation a beloved community.
I have another small ritual I observe. I listen, every year, to John Coltrane’s composition, “Alabama”. He wrote it just after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, which occurred on a Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, directly after the March on Washington. Not even three weeks after King had lifted the nation on his oratorical wings, four schoolgirls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair—were dead in the basement of a church where they had come to rehearse with their choir. In 1965, the FBI concluded that the bombing had been carried out by four Ku Klux Klan members. But it took until 1977 for the first charges to be brought, and the case was not closed until 2002.
Faced with the deluge of news and events and a changing, sometimes appalling political landscape, some of us bicker with each other, some of us just don’t care to respond, some of us turn cynical. We act and react or disappear; we curse the darkness or light a candle. Some of us use our words, some of us do deeds. Some of us march, some write letters; some sign petitions, assemble, make phone calls, boycott. Some jazz scholars have said “Alabama” was not written in response to the bombing, but this can not be the case. John Coltrane had a horn, and he wielded it in a heavy time.
This morning I sent the recording of the song to my two sons, in honor of the day. Now the sky is clear blue, a blue-bird day as we say here in winter. Now I am listening to McCoy Tyner’s rumbling, ominous piano chords, Jimmy Garrison’s steady thunder of deep bass. I hear Coltrane’s tenor rising up over it, in suspended and drifting lines, husky and lamenting. The opening movement resolves into a brighter passage. The darkness gives way to the song’s brief sun-lit moment of hopeful belief. Elvin Jones picks up the pace on the high-hat. The song swings, it begins to lift, something is afoot: a new day, a new beginning, a sense of possibility, renewed determination. And just as that hope rises, the middle passage of the song crumbles. The instruments fade out, the pulse slows, the structure disintegrates. In the background one can almost discern the moaning of anguished voices.
Certainly this was Coltrane’s intent—the song has walked us through the long night of captivity to the threshold of a joyous daybreak, but the events in Birmingham brought darkness on again. So the song then enters it’s third movement—a return to the darkness. Yes, our nation aspires to be great, but we are still trapped in our own twisted, self-defeating psychology. Even holy sanctuaries are not safe from the evil and hatred that still stalks man’s soul.
The song ends where it began, but with one final flourish. Coltrane’s horn ascends, again, stretching and reaching, unyielding in it’s strength, relentless and fully throated. The last notes are a cry of enduring resistance. Something in it says, “Yes, we see what man’s hand has wrought, but we must not give in.”
I am listening this morning. For a moment partisan rancor ceases. I would like to get on my knees and tell you: still your mind and your compulsions, that you might be able to hear, truly. “Alabama” is a dark reminder, a song of heartbreak in a tragic time. It speaks of past and present. It laments, but it holds hope. It’s a prayer and a call to each of us, and we must answer.