Saturday, January 10, 2009

Getting to the Promised Land: March On: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris

My brother worked very hard on his speech. He understood how important each and every one of his words would be. He wrote them, and scratched them out, and wrote down some more.

He stayed up all night in his hotel room. Not once did he stop to eat, or even lay his head down on his pillow for a nap. Even if he wanted to sleep, he couldn't--his speech wouldn't let him rest.

It has been almost forty-six years since Martin Luther King, Jr., led the 1963 March on Washington and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Many of those who played a part in this historic day have passed from the scene. But one eyewitness with a special perspective on that time, King's older sister Christine King Farris, author of the noted picture book My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has shared her unique memory and insight on this memorable day with us in her new illustrated memoir March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed The World.

As the national holiday celebrating King's birthday falls memorably this year on the eve of the inauguration of our first African-American president, the best-known words of Martin's address seem more eerily prophetic than ever:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

Christine Farris, while not physically present in Washington that day (she was with her elderly parents in Atlanta), was emotionally present with her brother as she watched the events on television. She describes the crowd, growing larger and larger through the day, the other leaders of the movement--James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young--who pushed through the swelling crowd with Martin as he walked to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the voice of Mahalia Jackson as it soared over the throng massed on the Mall and as later, in the midst of his address, she poignantly called out, "Tell them about your dream, Martin."

At this point, Farris writes, King departed from the text of his studiously prepared speech, and this extemporaneous portion became his best-remembered message:

"I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Of these hopeful words which now seem indeed to have changed our nation, Farris says,

"I could see the legacy of our family of ministers coming through Martin. Today he was preaching to the nation. He was on fire. He was giving the kind of sermon that moved people to tears.

My brother was making history. He was changing the world. And reminding everyone that we are all God's children, and all from a great nation that believes in liberty."

As in her earlier book, Farris gives us special insight into the family values which prepared King for his later role in life--his parents' warnings against "chesty pride," their rules about dressing in your best when going before the public, and their solid belief in their own abilities and rights. Farris writes simply and unself-consciously from her unique point of view as the big sister of an American hero in language which will resonate with her intended readers.

Many substantial books for young readers have been written on the subject of the civil rights era and the March on Washington in particular. (For some of them, see my posts of January 15 and 16, 2008, here). Coming from a sister who shared King's formative years and knew him as only a sibling can, Christine King Farris' March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed The World is an invaluable addition to the historical record of that period. Wonderfully illustrated by London Ladd, this book belongs in every library to be read on every Martin Luther King Day.

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