Dr. MLK Day: The Pain, and Progress, of Remembering

photo credit: Wasfi Akab via photopin cc

Our memory is the keeper of personal history, a mental database that both helps and enslaves us; it saves us from making the same mistakes and arms us with the know-how to teach others, and yet it can also paralyze us with lingering memories of trauma and fear.

For today’s holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I met with Mrs. Bernadette Reeves, an African-American tour guide in St. Augustine, Florida, who has retraced, over 17 years, the steps, and memories—painful and historic—of civil rights activists in the small coastal town.

St. Augustine, the place I currently call home, has gained notoriety for its significance as the first continuous European settlement in North America, but rarely do people recall its role as a hotbed of racial upheaval and consequent social change in the mid-1960s.

Mrs. Reeves, 68, has been keeping alive the past—imparting the collective memory of the African-American experience here, so others may remember its importance in shaping who we are today.

“Any group that forgets its background is bound to repeat it,” she said. “The more you know about yourself, you do better in the world.”

During her tours, with equal parts verve and sympathetic despair, Mrs. Reeves recounts the stories of Dr. King, Andrew Young, Dr. Robert B. Haling, Mary Peabody and others who endured dissent and outright violence for their public call for equality. The stories abound, from beatings of non-violent marchers to unprovoked shootings into African-American homes.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Dr. King was denied entry to St. Augustine’s Monson Motor Lodge in 1964. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Her passion, and the fact that she’s been living, re-living, again and again, the injustices of the St. Augustine Movement, a micro-movement of the wider African-American Civil Rights Movement, made me wonder about her own welfare.

“Is this work good for you?” I asked.

“Life gives you that pain anyways,” she replied. “I believe it’s important to examine things honestly. It’s difficult, but I’ve got to do it anyway.”

Mrs. Reeves admits that African-Americans, here and elsewhere, struggle with breaking old habits (not walking through the town square, for example) because places are reminders of what happened in years past, and part of an individual’s identity is bound up in listening to the stories, and instructions, of one’s elders.

“If your grandma told you of the atrocities committed against blacks in the square, you’re less likely to go there,” she said.

“Is it possible for there to be a shift in communities like these?” I asked. “How can people of all backgrounds feel comfortable enough to inhabit the same spaces?”

Mrs. Reeves paused, and looked to her husband Alphonso. “It’s going to take the young people to make the change because they have the strength, the agility AND (she emphasized) they have not experienced life the same way that I did, or my ancestors.”

Young people, it seemed, lacked some level of inhibiting pain, having been born and lived farther away from a particular point in time—and yet, despite this distance, “had a responsibility to carry on the torch or history would be forgotten.”

The couple went on to speak lovingly of their grandchildren, who, upon hearing the fury that unfolded here, were shocked. They simply could not understand the mistreatment and inequality imposed upon others.

I continued to listen, captivated by their history and thought-provoking perspectives on the past, current economic affairs and their children.

I doubted Mrs. Reeves saw herself as one who carries forward the torch of progress, distinguishing herself from children, “the strong ones who will make the change.”  But it is then that I realized that change is not confined to a particular group of people, or the memories they hold, but to a shared existence across time. Who we are today is about what we do now, and what we did then. The past, the present, the future are not compartmentalized realities, but one—its parts informing and shaping the whole.

Feature Photo Credit: Wasfi Akab via photopin cc