This is the back of my Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. t-shirt that I got with my fellow artist friend Deborah Pegues in Atlanta before this day was declared a national holiday. It was January 15th and we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on Auburn Avenue. We came to honor Dr. King’s memory and work. For me, it was a feeling of angst because before going to college I had volunteered in rural Georgia, in small towns where people of color did not have paved roads, running water or electricity in some cases. No fire hydrants, no street lights. They were treated with disgust and oppressed in ways you’d never think possible, and this was in 1979 so you’d have expected things to be better. I had grown to love some of the children that summer, and going away to college after that experience was very hard for me as those impressions froze me. For years I could not give myself anything material without feeling truly awful. There were kids who were still living in oppression, and not that far away. I kept thinking of them and so I felt a chip on my shoulder against the established society that could allow this, and an inability to eat well or make healthy decisions for myself without feeling truly horrible inside. For Deborah, it was more deeply personal. On that day of King’s birthday in the early 1980’s, she told me of how, when she was little, she saw people buying and eating doughnuts. She began to go toward the doughnut shop, also very much wanting a doughnut. But her parents pulled her back and explained that she could not enter that place, it was for whites only. And this was only one small memory that Deborah had, there had to be many more memories of the oppression of segregation and cruelty she and others experienced first-hand. And yet Deborah had not one ounce of anything but love within her–she was and is completely generous of heart, patient and kind. I don’t know how she carried such a depth of true grace after being raised to witness and experience true cruelty, but I admired it so fully and honor it today with a heart that learned from her.
I think on that day at the King Center, Deborah saw that I wanted the “Let’s Make it a Holiday” t-shirt that was selling outside the King Center and she insisted on buying it for me! I believe I did not allow her to do that, but maybe I did. I can’t quite remember. Every year when I take the shirt out to remember how hard the days were before this day was named a national holiday, I realize we have very far to go still to heal these wounds in our society, but I’m mostly left with the feeling of the deep grace in the hearts and actions of Dr. King and my artist friend, Deborah.