It was the invitation to “engage in a nonviolent direct action program,”1 that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963. In his letter written from the Birmingham Jail, he explains in detail the need for the direct action program, as “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”2
To begin the conversation of segregation, I want to quickly share the way my brain works, it might explain the color deficiency I experience in moments. I have found that it is important for me to get a frame of context for what is taking place in the world at the time in which I am questioning. In this case we are thinking of both Louis Armstrong and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which means we have about 7 decades to cover.
Armstrong was born in 1901, during the height of what began as the Black Codes and transformed into a segregated Jim Crow South during the late 1890’s. If we use this as the first reference point and then jump 28 years later to the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a world that was still experiencing residue from the first World War, we enter a period known as the Great Depression or the 30’s. Here is where things begin to merge, the Cold War begins (1947), the Vietnam War begins (1955) and the Civil Rights movement follows directly behind (1964); all of this in the midst of a very segregated Southern United States.
Armstrongs 1960 recap of his invitation to his hometown, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1931, describes him playing with his band at the Suburban Garden, what he mentions as “a white man’s place.” He went on to say that, “no negro band had ever played there before… [it] had its own radio program.”3 On opening night, the announcer, a white man, exclaimed that he would not introduce “that nigger man,” even with a large inter-racial audience awaiting Armstrong’s performance. In the same article Armstrong also writes about a tour he had taken through the South with his band; saying “lots of times we wouldn’t get a place to sleep. So we’d cross the tracks, pull over to the side of the road and spend the night there. We couldn’t get into hotels. Our money wasn’t good enough.” 4
One might think that the conditions of the southern states would have seemingly altered during the course of a 30 years overlap merging these two men’s lives. Only the segregating, unjust, unwelcoming treatment of Black people continued, taking on new shapes and forms, yet still falling into what I’ve been describing as the “grey space.”
I opened this post with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing from a jail cell in Alabama, as he attempted to express how Black communities and lives have been affected by this seperatist behavior for decades,:
“When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing cloud of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness towards white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you..””5
You begin to lose color in your vision, reality no longer makes sense because there is no way to justify the world around you, no words to explain a reason for such mannerisms. These are the moments when connecting dots still leave you with unresolved puzzles, when the lives of Louis Armstrong and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., merge. No matter the drastic gap in history that differentiated their beginnings, the overlapping of “grey space” that displayed the parallels of separation throughout decades is visible.
In the world we are living in today, demanding recognition, justice and equality for Black Lives, through artistic and social practices becomes our way to “engage in a nonviolent direct action program.” Let’s consider the overlapping “grey space” that merged Armstrong and Dr. King’s time, how can we connect our world with theirs? Would it be an insane notion for me to offer the loss of color as a response to seeing and changing the world from an inclusion perspective? Or is this “grey space” I have stumbled upon a fictional integration of histories that show no relevance to the current events of today?
This post has been a continuation in a series of thoughts dedicated to this year’s 45th Black History Month celebration.
1Martin Luther King Jr, 1963, Okra.Stanford.Edu
2Martin Luther King Jr, 1963, Okra.Stanford.Edu
3Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, 1961, Ebony Magazine
4Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, 1961, Ebony Magazine
5Martin Luther King Jr, 1963, Okra.Stanford.Edu