January 21, 2013

Maine Voices: Long-ago encounter drives determination to live out Dr. King's ideals

In a young black man's request for help, a young white woman recognized their common humanity.

By CAROL KONTOS Special to the Press Herald

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

-- Martin Luther King Jr.,

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 1963

 

WINDHAM - It doesn't seem so long ago that I was an undergraduate living with three close friends from college in a sublet on Marlborough Street in Boston for the summer.

We were all small-town Midwesterners through and through, so the adventures the city had to offer us were captivating, intriguing and sometimes even a little scary. We each managed to find summer jobs, pooled our resources for rent, food and utilities -- and explored the city to our hearts' content. It was glorious.

Campus protests against the war had been moving across country from each coast before fully pollinating in Iowa, so the political activity in this major Eastern city was far more lively and engaging than anything we had yet experienced in the heartland.

I found a job at a settlement house in Dorchester, rode the "T" each day back and forth to work and gained a political awareness and a sense of activism that sustain me still.

All of my coworkers were from Eastern schools -- and they were different from us. Their hair was longer, their accents thicker, their politics progressive, their outlooks idealistic -- and I loved it all.

With very little prodding, I joined them volunteering in the anti-war presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. We spent evenings organizing and weekends doing literature drops or registering voters, all the while knowing that our candidate was a long shot given the political machinery of the party. But we were wildly idealistic and energetic and hopeful -- after all, it was our generation's war, our draft, our body bags, our future.

And one August evening around dusk, I walked alone along the Charles, trying to make some sense of all that was going on. That evening I felt particularly tormented:

How could this country continue along this path of war? Why had the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. not made more of a difference? Why were the voices of protest not affecting political decisions? What more could we do?

I sat alone on a boat ramp. The street lights came on, and I realized it was late enough that my roommates would begin to worry -- we had pledged to be very conscientious about keeping track of each other, especially in those days before cellphones.

A slight black man about my age approached me as I started to leave. Meekly, he asked me for food, a jacket, money. I had none.

Then -- and I don't know why I hadn't noticed at first -- I saw he had only one arm. And in that instant he seemed uncommonly vulnerable: a small black man with one arm, asking for food, a jacket, money. And there I was with nothing to give him.

"Will you wait till I come back?"

"Sure."

I dashed back to the brownstone on Marlborough Street, raced up three flights of narrow stairs, grabbed two sweatshirts, a pair of socks, a half a loaf of bread, two bananas and what little cash I had and scurried back to the boat ramp. He was still there, small, alone, vulnerable.

"Thanks."

And that was it. We never even exchanged names. He walked off along the river, and I walked home.

I have to wonder now why this encounter has stayed with me more than 40 years and why the memory often occurs around the time of Martin Luther King observances. Perhaps there is a collective subconscious that retains the legacy of the reverend of peace. Perhaps I recall a man who advocated nonviolence and civil rights and who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. Whatever the reason, that episode left an impression on me.

Today I wish I could tell that young man that our unexpected encounter along the Charles River had made a difference: His needs became mine to meet, his vulnerability became mine to ease, his dignity was mine to protect. And I would tell him that I realized decades later that on that warm August night in 1968, he and I briefly had been "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," just as Dr. King had written -- and I am better for it.

Carol Kontos is a resident of Windham.

 

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