MLK and New Hampshire

It was 50 years ago this month that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Tennessee. For their safety and well-being, his wife and family retreated to stay with friends in New Hampshire.

Chances are, you didn’t dwell on any of this back on January 15 when King’s holiday was celebrated, but it lends to the irony that New Hampshire was the last state in the country, in 1999, to recognize the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1985.

I was a newcomer here when that debate was raging. It didn’t faze me too much. I grew up in the deep South, so I was accustomed to the ambivalence with which many political leaders viewed MLK. Still, it was surprising to learn that even here in the heart of the far North such matters were still unsettled.  

My wife and I happened to be visiting my daughter in Jackson, Mississippi, on MLK Day. The just-opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum had been in the news regarding controversial plans for a visit from President Donald Trump (who tactfully opted for a private tour).

The day my wife and I were there, the museum was open and free to all comers, a gift from the Kellogg Foundation, so there was a line that stretched half a mile down the street. It was a chilly day, but things moved along quickly, and there was a festive vibe all around with families, mostly African-American, excited for the chance to properly introduce their kids to the most important social movement in American history (and to refresh their own memories and perspectives in the process).

The museum is state-of-the-art and beautifully designed to convey the passions and the tragedies of that period of Mississippi history. I knew a few of the stories going in, but even iconic facts are more powerful when collected  and detailed in one place. Try reading the seemingly endless list of the names and “crimes” of those lynched in the early years of the struggle without feeling shame that more was not done to stop it.

I knew about the murder of Medgar Evers in his own driveway, and had heard about the abduction and execution of young Emmett Till, but my exposure had always been at arms-length and filtered though the gauze of history. Hearing their stories in a place sanctified to their memories made these characters real, their lives meaningful, their experiences tangible. But the most important thing I took away was the number of other stories, many just as powerful, that I had never heard.

Once you know people, you can’t really ignore them. These heroes and villains (plenty of both) and their struggles are now parts of me and my world. That’s a good museum.

Here in New Hampshire, we have a number of people engaged in a similar pursuit, finding and telling New Hampshire’s stories of slavery and intolerance, and recognizing those who fought to right such wrongs. Portsmouth’s Black Heritage Trail and African Burying Ground monuments are two worthy examples. A great play by Lowell Williams of Nashua, titled “Six Nights in the Black Belt,” features our own civil rights martyr, Jonathan Daniels, who died shielding a little girl from a racist’s bullet.

It may have taken the Granite State longer to recognize the holiday for Dr. King, but he both recognized and blessed our state when he proclaimed,“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Not everyone could visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum for free last January, but if you just enjoyed your day off without much reflection, there’s another chance to get to know about Dr. King and the people of that movement on the day of King’s death, April 4.

Categories: Editor’s Note