When I was a boy, my mother would sometimes let me fall asleep on her bed while she watched television. I would drift between sleep and wakefulness, my thoughts penetrated by the sound of Johnny Carson’s chuckle, or the earnest baritone of a news anchor. One night, when I was maybe ten, I woke to the sound of my mother weeping. The bed shook with her crying, and I was afraid. I pretended to be asleep, but out of the corner of an eye I looked at the television screen. There were men in brown uniforms carrying red flags emblazoned with broken black crosses. Others wore long white sheets. They were marching outside the public library where my grandmother often took me.
I didn’t know why they were at the library, though I suspected it wasn’t to check out books. I didn’t know why my mother was crying, only that she was crying and it scared me. I closed my eyes, and soon she stopped crying, and then I was asleep.
Not long after, my mother wrote a letter to the newspaper, and her letter made the marching men angry. I know because they called our house. Once, I answered the phone before she could get to it. “Hello?” I said. “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?” The person on the other end was an angry, stupid-sounding woman. I wondered if she was someone’s mother. My mother took the phone and hung it up. Later, I heard her call the sheriff. We stayed inside, and I wondered if the angry men were coming.
They never did, and later, when I was in college, I thought it was silly when my mother would warn me that writing some of the things I wrote was going to get me killed. It was an unfounded worry, because I had neither a large audience nor anything consequential to say. Every age is filled with men willing to murder the carriers of ideas, even when they don’t understand them. The words first have to strike at their hearts, however.
I’ve been listening to Martin Luther King’s speeches today, and lamenting that the times of great oration have passed for our country. Words are cheaper now, as are most of the men who utter them. Ideas have been displaced by soundbytes. It’s safer to speak that way, I suppose, and the overriding goal of the politician is to win, not to lead. I think people hated King because he spoke unsafely. He illuminated what Solzhenitsyn called the line dividing good and evil, the line that runs through every human heart. That is surely dangerous business.
I wonder where the prophets of this generation are. Where are the ones who will illuminate that line in every heart? It is so much easier to draw lines between people, between a virtuous Us and a nefarious Them, than to say: This is the evil we do, the evil I do. I wonder if no modern-day Martin Luther Kings rise up because our civilization is no longer capable of producing them, or because we no longer deserve them. Or perhaps they are there, crying out in the wilderness, and we all of us myself included have our televisions and ipods and internal self-focused monologues turned up too loudly to hear them.