What’s in a name – an MLK Day Reflection

My full, legal name is Jordan Luther King Schwartz. Kind of an unusual name for a white guy (and a Jew, no less).

How did I end up with a name usually reserved for civil rights memorials and streets running through the hood?

Back in early 1960’s, Jim Crow laws, mandating separate facilities for blacks and whites throughout the South, were still very much on the books and enforced. When Dallas County, Alabama blacks showed up on one of the two days per month they were allowed to apply to vote, for example, they were arrested and beaten. Of those few that managed to fill out an application, most were denied. Of 57,000 black citizens, only 130 were allowed to vote.

In early 1965, a young black man was shot and killed by the police in a cafe while trying to protect his mother and grandfather, who had fled for safety after the police had attacked a civil rights demonstration. In response, Martin Luther King and James Bevel organized a march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery to protest the violence and refusal to allow blacks vote. But when the demonstrators crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were met by a wall of police officers, many on horseback, armed with whips, batons, and tear gas. The police attacked, and the ensuing melee sent 17 protesters to the hospital.

The broadcast on national television of non-violent protesters being brutally beaten created a turning point in the American civil rights movement.

Up in New Haven, Marc and Anne Schwartz, my parents, had been watching the flowering of the civil rights movement with great hope. When they saw what had happened in Selma, they felt they needed to become directly involved.

With the encouragement of my mother, my father purchased a plane ticket and flew down to Selma to join a follow-up march. As a young psychiatrist, he hoped that he could offer both his medical and psychiatric services, in addition to joining the march.

Along with others from around the country, he took a bus from the airport to a small church where the marchers gathered and spent the night. He remembers the mix of people there, young black students from Morehouse College as well as whites like himself, and how welcoming everyone was, “the great sense of exhilaration for what we were doing, a friendliness.”

At one point, though, a man who had gone out into the surrounding neighborhood returned bleeding, with deep cuts on his face. He had been set upon by white kids from the area, slashed with a can opener. It served as a sobering reminder of the severity of their undertaking.

Thirty-two hundred marchers left Selma on March 21, 1965, but by the terms of the court order that permitted the march, only 300 were allowed to continue along the two-lane highway after the first day. My father was one of those 300.

They marched all day, each day, then camped in tents in muddy fields along the way. On the road and around the evening campfires, they would sing folk songs and civil rights songs like Which Side Are You On or Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Some nights were put up by courageous local blacks in their homes. Children gave over their rooms in small, stilt-mounted houses, sewage ditches running to the street, so that my father and the other marchers could have a comfortable place to rest. He and the families knew that KKK “night riders” had been shooting into these homes at night so, lying in bed, they held their breath each time a car drove by.

The Army, FBI, Federal Marshals, and a sullen Alabama National Guard lined the route all along the way. The occasional loud clack of a rifle cocking formed a staccato counterpoint to the steady patter of cold rain, the hum of the Alabama countryside and the music and singing of the marchers.

Fifty-four miles and 5 days later, they arrived in Montgomery. Along the way, the highway widened and more marchers were allowed to join. On March 25, 25,000 protesters walked to the State Capitol Building to hear King speak. He told them “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”

On August 6, 1965, the Voter’s Rights Act became law, the rules that had prevented blacks from registering were stricken and Federal registrars were sent to the South to ensure it was implemented.

There is much to admire in King. His dedication to equality and justice, of coures. He wasn’t just fighting for the liberation of his people, of blacks in America, he was fighting for the essential right that all people have to a free and happy life: “black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,” he said. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But there was more. In contrast to the anger and violence that characterized some civil rights leaders of the time, such as Malcolm X, King’s strict adherence to the principle of non-violence distinguished and elevated him. King understood that the means matter, that the rage we might feel in the face of an injustice doesn’t grant a moral shortcut: “I have consistently preached,” he wrote from Birmingham jail, “that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

And then there is the leadership. King knew it was not enough merely to understand what is right, not enough simply to say what ought to be, but that he at least, and perhaps we all, have a responsibility to make the world as it should be. He led by example. Not only his speeches, but his actions inspired generations.

If it had just been he alone crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the world would be a different place today. But it wasn’t. It was hundreds who sat at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, it was thousands that marched from Selma, and it was hundreds of thousands that gathered at the National Mall in Washington, where he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. King’s leadership meant his impact was multiplied by all those that followed him.

On April 4, 1968, my mother was driving across New Haven to visit a friend, when a news broadcaster interrupted the program. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.

It was a wound to her and to my family, a staggering and saddening realization that a greatness had been lost. So, a year later, when it came time to name their youngest son, they chose to honor him by making me his namesake.

That name was a great, formative gift from my parents. At various times in my life when I’ve had to make a tough decision between the easy way and the right way, I knew that if I chose the low road, I wouldn’t be entitled to sign my name to checks. I suppose I’ve felt like it would be an insult to King to carry that name and act basely. His principles have guided me like a rudder against the current and made me better, at least, than I might have been: my own personal WWMLKD bracelet, in a way.

So, in 2008, when my son was born, I wanted to give him as edifying a gift as my parents gave to me. Michelle and I struggled with it for a long time, sifting through and discarding dozens of names: this one too much, that one too little.

Finally, a friend mentioned an article she’d read about Nelson Mandela. We read it with growing wonder and recognition, because so many of the characteristics that Mandela exhibited were what we admired in King: his belief in universal justice, his leadership, his life long dedication to his principles.

And, so, when we heard the story of his name, that he was given the name “Nelson” by school teachers because children were forbidden from having African names, that his given name was Rolihlahla, a Xhosa word meaning “tree shaker” or “he who bends the branch” (or, in Mandela’s telling, “troublemaker”), we knew we had found a gift and compass for our son.

We hope his name, Zevin Rolihlahla Schwartz, does for him what my name has done for me.

  1. DOUG. said,

    This is a great story, Jordan, and really well told. Thanks for sharing it.

    Sun, January 17 at 2:56 pm
  2. Nancy M said,

    A very moving tale, Jordan Luther King Schwartz. Adds nice perspective to this holiday. 1968 was a bad year, RFK was next, leaving the hopeful summer of love of the year prior in the dust.

    Nice parents, yours. Thanks.

    Sun, January 17 at 2:57 pm
  3. KaraScene said,

    What a great story. I’m sure your parents are very proud of you.

    Sun, January 17 at 3:56 pm
  4. Janey said,

    Thanks so much for sharing. It’s a great contribution to the reflection I try to do every year over this weekend.

    Sun, January 17 at 6:50 pm
  5. iyqtoo said,

    I experienced the racial riots in my hometown of Baltimore following Dr. King’s assasination, but racial prejudice didn’t become real to me until I lived for two years in Charlotte, NC as a young adult in the mid-’70s. The (white) realtor began my indoctrination to the meaning of ‘southern hospitality’. Not to worry, Blacks wouldn’t be crossing the almost-visible border that ran diagonally through the city except to work and I was to shop only on this side of the divide. It wasn’t a safety issue, that’s just the way it was. The single most important criteria for choosing the house we were about to buy, our first, was to choose one where children weren’t bused to the ‘black’ schools.

    To a young mom who’d grown up in the suburbs with virtually no exposure to racial or religious prejudice, this was pretty hard to believe. Not only did I have childhood friends who were Blacks, Asians or Jews, some of them were Catholics! But shocked and offended as I was by that Southern realtor’s take on things, the worst part came later when I discovered the way local Blacks accepted their ‘place’ in that society. Subservient, humble & unempowered with no apparent expectation for change. Black children walked with their heads down around whites in a way that was at least as offensive as the angry defiance we’d seen in the Black rioter back in Baltimore. I could not believe that slavery was still alive in the attitudes of those southern Americans in 1976!

    That kind of inequality might always be part of other cultures and it’ll continue to squander their human resources and limit their potential as long as it goes on, the same as it was doing here. Dr. King deserves our respect and thanks for his role in bringing it to an end in the US. I’m sure he accomplished even more than he ever dreamed.

    Mon, January 18 at 10:28 am
  6. julie said,

    Jordan, as a South African living in the US, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of “Zevin Rolihlahla Schwartz” and the stories he will have to tell when he grows up! You will definitely have to take him on a visit to South Africa when he’s old enough.

    If you’re interested, I’m driving the 46664 Bangle project http://www.theBangle.com here in the US and would appreciate any help in spreading the social responsibility message of this initiative. It’s through the manufacturing of the official 46664 Bangle bracelet that we’re able to create jobs, build skills, and make a difference. 46664 was Nelson Mandela’s prisoner number and is now an international symbol of his greater humanitarian causes.

    Please feel free to email me with any questions you may have, and please publish any of these details as appropriate on your blog.

    Thanks for reading,

    Mon, January 18 at 11:47 am
  7. Chris W. said,

    Beautiful story, Jordan. Thank you for posting it here. And what powerful legacies in your family!

    You might enjoy a story by one of my favorite Southern Writers, Eudora Welty. One night on the radio she heard civil rights activist Medgar Evars had been gunned down in the dark of night. And she thought, “I know who did this.” Not the person’s name, but the thoughts behind the actions. So overnight she wrote a short story, “Where Is This Voice Coming From?” for publication in the New Yorker. It was so accurate that police feared it might impede a fair ury trial & she was aksed to put off publishing it or change the details.

    The story is available online here,thanks to MIT: http://web.mit.edu/norvin/www/somethingelse/welty.html

    I think the depiction of the gunman’s wife is as telling as anything in the story.

    Art imitates life, and we hope, changes it…


    Mon, January 18 at 11:48 am
  8. Jenny said,

    Wow. Thank you for that great story. Zev will be proud to live up to his name one day, just as you are!


    Mon, January 18 at 8:36 pm
  9. Ron said,

    Thanks for sharing this Jordan. At this time in our nations history when some would have us believe that the our countries best times are behind us and that the days of their youth were what we should aspire to again, it is important to remind ourselves of just what the realities of those days were for entire segements of the population. While I prefer to concentrate on the positive achievements that have come since the days of my youth (late 60’s- 70’s), we must never forget the courage and struggle that afforded those achievements. I hope young Zevin will follow your footsteps and carry his name well.

    Mon, January 18 at 8:40 pm
  10. Yani said,

    That is so awesome! Thank you.

    Tue, January 19 at 10:20 am
  11. Amani said,

    Thank you for this story, and for consciously parenting, from the naming on up.

    Wed, January 20 at 12:26 pm
  12. Dorothy said,

    Jordan, What a beautiful and touching story. It must be wonderful to have such deep ties to history. Your neighbor in the gray and white house up the street. Dorothy

    Mon, January 16 at 8:51 am
  13. Anne said,

    Great story – and what a great family memory and tradition to carry on!! Thanks for sharing and all you do for the Wallingford blog!

    Mon, January 16 at 8:47 pm
  14. Hamilton Smith said,

    Jordan, very nicely done and a message I have shared with my family and friends. Thank you for this important reflection.

    Tue, January 17 at 9:41 am
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