The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the Edge of History

At the close of Martin Luther King Day, and on the night before Barack Obama is to be inaugurated, I heard the 1963 speech known as the "I have a dream" speech read aloud. On the day before our new president takes the oath of office, and shatters forever the legacy of slavery, far though we have to go in other respects, I thought of those who came before, and did not make it to this milepost.

I thought especially of my old mentor from Columbia Law School, Charles L. Black, who grew up in deeply segregated Texas, set out on the path that led him to serve in the NAACP litigation team of Brown v. Board of Educ. when, at age 16, he heard Louis Armstrong play:
He was the first genius I had ever seen. That may be a structurable part of the process that led me to the Brown case… . The moment of first being, and knowing oneself to be, in the presence of genius, is a solemn moment; it is perhaps the moment of final and indelible perception of man’s utter transcendence of all else created. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black, then, in any but a servant’s capacity. There were of course black professionals and intellectuals in Austin, as one later learned, but they kept to themselves, out back of town; no doubt shunning humiliation. I liked most of the blacks I knew; I loved a few of them–like old Buck Green, born and raised a slave, who still plays the harmonica through my mouth, having taught me when he was 75 and I was 10. Some were honored and venerated, in that paradoxical white-Southern way… . But genius–fine control over total power, all height and depth, forever and ever? It had simply never entered my mind, for confirming or denying in conjecture, that I would see this for the first time in a black man… .

That October night, I was standing in the crowd with a “good old boy” from Austin High. We listened together for a long time. Then he turned to me, shook his head as if clearing it–as I’m sure he was–of an unacceptable though vague thought, and pronounced the judgment of the time and place: “After all, he’s nothing but a God damn nigger!”

The good old boy did not await, perhaps fearing, reply. He walked one way and I the other. Through many years now, I have felt that it was just then that I started walking toward the Brown case, where I belonged… . Every person of decency in the South of those days must have had some doubts about racism, and I had had mine even then–perhaps more than most others. But Louis opened my eyes wide, and put to me a choice. Blacks, the saying went, were “all right in their place.” What was the “place” of such a man, and of the people from which he sprung?”

From "My World With Louis Armstrong" by C.L. Black, Jr. (Kudos to another professor of mine, Eben Moglen, for making this piece available online!)

At a victory dinner celebrating the Supreme Court's decision in Brown, Thurgood Marshall, who spearheaded the charge, and argued the case brilliantly, recognized "Charlie Black, a white man from Texas, who's been with us all the way!" It was in the spirit of Dr. King, who stated unequivocally, "we cannot walk alone."

Professor Black never forgot his debt; continuing a tradition from his many years at Yale, he hosted at Columbia annual Louis Armstrong evenings when students were invited to hear the classic Armstrong 78s and listen to CLB reminisce about Thurgood Marshall, life in the law, including the need for a life beyond the law. But the music and its meaning was key.

Justice Marshall, and all who worked with him, including Charles Black, were following the path laid out by the man we honor today, whose greatest speech shone a light down the corridors of history, and the next step of which we take tomorrow.

Tonight, pause. Hear it, see it for yourself. And celebrate the dream's beginning.

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