Monday, January 19, 2015

"Burial For A King," Rebecca Burns: Atlanta, April 1968

January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).

A recent book by Rebecca Burns, Burial For A King, recalls the events in Atlanta surrounding the weekend of Reverend King's assassination in Memphis. Disturbances occurred in many cities, and in Atlanta there were concerns there might be rioting during the funeral itself. Here is an early excerpt about a lunch that Thursday, April 4, after King's departure to Tennessee, in which a friend arranges an unusual meeting for King after his scheduled return.

"Of all the weird ideas you've had for me, this is one of the weirdest," Martin Luther King Jr. told Xernona Clayton when she approached him with a request: Calvin Craig, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, wanted to meet him. Would he consider? King eventually agreed, and so on this Thursday, the day after she took King to the airport to catch a flight to Memphis, Clayton had lunch with Craig to finalize the details.

While they ate in the Marriott's tropical-themed dining room, Clayton realized the attention they were drawing. It was still odd in 1960s Atlanta to see a black woman and a white man sharing a meal -- especially in a hotel restaurant. On top of that, she and Craig were minor local celebrities, which contributed to the raised eyebrows, sideways glances, and outright stares.

She was the star of The Xernona Clayton Show on the local CBS affiliate -- the first television show in the South to be hosted by a black woman. Her husband, Ed Clayton, had directed public relations for Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and after Ed died she had filled in when needed. She frequently traveled with King's wife Coretta Scott King. Diminutive and feisty Clayton was recognized by her trademark hairstyle -- a tall, tightly pinned topknot anchored by a shiny headband. She had a flair for fashion and an enviably taut figure; she had met Ed when he begged her and her identical twin, Xenobia, to model bikinis for the centerfold of Jet magazine.

In contrast to the chic Clayton, Calvin Craig was a burly construction worker, mustached and with arms and a neck reddened from a lifetime of outdoor labor. Like Clayton, Calvin Craig was familiar to television viewers -- but as the subject of news stories, not a polished anchor. He notoriously appeared in full Klan regalia to lead anti-integration protests through the streets of Atlanta or on the steps of the Georgia capitol. He traveled throughout the South to attend cross burnings.

Craig and Clayton met through Model Cities, the urban component of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Craig was named to the program as the representative from Adair Park, a neighborhood of mostly working-class whites not far from its predominantly black counterpart, Pittsburgh. Their first encounter was prickly; Clayton watched as Craig scooted from chair to chair to avoid sitting next to any black participant in the meeting. Not long after, Craig visited Clayton's office and rattled her as he revealed he had compiled a dossier on her. ...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Readings for a holiday season: Light

"We'll Leave a Light On"
(Tom Clark)

Without it, what savage unsocial nights
Our ancestors must have spent! All those deadly
Winter nocturnes in caves and unillumined icy
Fastnesses: they must have laid around and
Grumbled at one another in the dark like the blind,
Fumbling each other's features for the wrinkle of a smile.
What tedious repartee must have passed! Perhaps
This accounts for the dullness of much archaic
Poetry, whose somber cast is notorious and must
Have derived from the traditions of those
Long unlanterned nights. Jokes came in with candles.
How did they see to pick up a pin, if they
Had any? How did they get dinner down? Think of
The mélange of chance carving that must have
Ensanguined dining after dusk! Lights out,
Not even love's what it's cracked up to be.
The senses absolutely give and take
Reciprocally. One wants to know whether that's
An elbow, a knee, or the night table
Before one returns the favor of a friendly nudge.
Wasn't it by the midnight taper all writers once digested
Their meditations? By that same light we ought
To approach them, if we ever expect to catch
The tiger-moth of inspiration that dances
In the word incandescent.

Light is necessary to the human battle against fear and uncertainty. It can supply security and light-hearted relief: "jokes came with candles." At year's end the illumination of fireworks extinguishes all dashed hopes and ignites new ones in their place. New Year's Eve is the most social night of the year to balance the ledger against those dark, "savage unsocial nights / Our ancestors must have spent." Make plans, and if for one brief night imagine that all can happen with the right amount of luck, pluck, and light enough to see them through. "We'll Leave a Light On" by Tom Clark appears online at his blog Beyond the Pale.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Readings for a holiday season: Time

"In Betweenness"
(Pierre Joris)

is it a good thing to find
two empty pages between the day 
before yesterday & yesterday 
when trying to make room
for the blue opera afternoon 
of today a sunday like any sunday
in may?
            there is no one could tell 
or judge though my own
obsession with the in between 
should dictate the answer
& thus let me rejoice at being able 
to insert today between the
day before yesterday & yesterday 
as if it were the yeast of night 
allowed these spaces to open
(do not say holes to grow)
in the spongy tissue of this
my papery time-space discon- 
            leaven of earth leaven of writing 
of running writing to earth
in these in betweenesses that now 
please as much as the opera in ear 
that asks que dieu vous le rende dans
l’autre monde but the desire is to stay right 
here in this world this in between even as 
the sound changes the radio sings son 
vada o resti intanto non partirai
di qua
            exactly my feeling sheltered on these 
pages now filled and pushing up against 

"In Betweeness" by Pierre Joris appeared online at the Poem-a-Day site. His 1987 collection Breccia has just been republished by Skylight Press. In the book's original introduction Joris, the poet, teacher, and translator, writes: “What I would have liked to see come through in Breccia is the tension between the fragmentary nature of experience & knowledge, & the desire for a narrative syntax, for the whole story of the tribe, the telling of which does inevitably blur the sharp edges of those shards. Europe gave me my history, those ghostly voices of the ancestors, real or made up, lied to or listened to. America gave me geography, the space of my dance. My hope has been that language, or what little of it I have been able to serve, has made a threshing floor for their marriage.” At the end of a year, language becomes a bridge between yesterday and tomorrow, the certainty of the past and an unwritten future. Today is "the space of the dance" between.