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.
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.