Talking Love in Tucson at a Breakfast for Martin Luther King

by on January 23, 2020 · 1 comment

in Civil Rights, History


by Ernie McCray

I’ve been asked,

as we honor

Martin Luther King,

to speak of what I

have overcome in life.

In ten minutes.

And I’m thinking “Wow, really?”

because it seems to me

that breaking down my life’s journey

in such a short time is

like asking Sir Isaac Newton

to summarize

his theory of gravity

in between

the time it would take

to dip a biscuit

in a spot of tea.

It can’t be done if you ask me.

There was just too much to overcome

when I was growing up in Tucson

as Jim Crow was in my face,

as me and my homies used to say,

“like a gnat, Jack. You better believe that.”

No matter where we were at.

And here’s a fact:

You never overcome such as that.

We never know what society

is going to do next,

how it’s going to attack.

They used to hang us by the neck

and we’ve kind of gotten over that,

but now society is coming after our hair

for wearing it “black,”

suspending us

and giving us pink slips

because of our hairstyles,

because of Goddess Braids

and twists and weaves

and the like.

So I’m at the mike

saying we’re still overcoming,

for as dear Martin once said:

“The arc of the moral universe is long

but it bends toward justice.”

But there’s no need for alarm.

We simply have to “keep on keeping on”

and it was in Tucson,

in spite of the racism all around,

that I discovered a noun

that to me is the key

to surmounting hatefulness and bigotry:



On the subject Martin said:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love

will have the final word in reality.”

And I can vouch for its power

as I’ve been surrounded by love all my life,

which at age eighty-one, seems like an eternity.

In my mother’s house, my home,

love flowed

slow and steadily

and sweet

as the drippings

from a honey bee’s


It was a home where I was listened to,

where I was given the freedom to expand my mind,

to learn, to explore, to question

and entertain ideas

and hopes and dreams

in the realm of both the known and the unknown.

I could feel the love in my house

in my soul and in my bones.

Martin grew up in a house like mine,

where he learned to love

by being loved.

In my neighborhood

love was scattered like

precious stones,

there for the grabbing,

to help us get along

in our quest to live with

dignity and integrity respectfully and fruitfully

as efficiently as is the possibility of such justifiably,

hopefully openly, kindly, zestfully, wisely,

truthfully, realistically, and independently as can be

with mobility

and liberty without bigotry and hostility and futility.

We just wanted to be allowed to be

who we were

and who we wanted to be

and all kinds of folks

helped me become

who I’ve come to be:

the righteous brothers and sisters

gathered for worship at Mt. Calvary,

sitting and fanning

with fans donated by

Wells-Ragsdale Mortuary

while a ceiling fan simply

offered no relief

from heat registering

a hundred plus degrees –

soaked in sweat in their Sunday best,

the women decked out

to make you shout,

fashioning hats

that had on them

a little of this and a little of that,

razzle and dazzle,

glitter, feathers, bows and nets

and other knick-knacks

with matching outfits,

fresh from Lerner’s layaway rack,

the men sporting

shiny suits and colorful ties

and well broken in Florsheim shoes,

the best they could do,

having contributed to the purchase of the hats and all that –

all of them heaping amen after amen

on us children

for almost anything we’d do,

tell a little Bible story, or two,

recite a little memory verse

or a Christian rhyme

or sing about “This little light of mine”

and how “I’m going to let it shine.”

They made us young folks

feel like wine connoisseurs

savoring a fine wine,

like diamonds

being mined

and refined

as hope for a better world

was forever on their minds

and we were that hope personified.

Theirs was a powerful love,

strengthened by their belief in a God up above

and I’ve carried it inside me

over parts of two centuries.

And there was Osie.


Loved Osie.

Gave me my first job

at age five.

At his shoeshine stand.

And I can just see and hear him now

gesturing with his rhythmic

shoe-shining hands saying:

“Shine the shoes, son, not the socks.”

And at the end of the day,

which most likely

was a third work

and two-thirds play,

I’d go buy me a cherry coke

or some lemonade

or go to a hamburger joint

with hope in my eyes

that this time they’d let me step in

and maybe buy

some fries

with the money I had just been paid.

Never saw that day.

But I was high on life

and kept my hope alive

Mrs. Buggs.

With all her hugs.

Passed for white

and made it turn out all right.

For my birthday

every year

she gave me

a book to read

and would tell me how she, indeed,

expected me to succeed,

giving me so much of what I’d need

to make it in this society.

And there was a woman in that white world

Mrs. Buggs ducked in and out of

who also

expressed her love

for me

through her affection with the written word,

pointing out books

I might enjoy reading

and putting stars on a bulletin board by those

I had read

and paraded me around the library

bragging about how smart I was

to everybody

and when we would say goodbye to each other

nothing but the nicest of thoughts

swirled around in my swollen head –

and there was “Bill” at the Dairy Queen

who would lay a butterscotch milkshake on me

for getting good grades.

Oh, there were days I felt I had it made in the shade.

But no human being

or institution

or anything

has influenced my life more

than Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High,

the “Colored” school.

I showed up on the campus in fourth grade,

like a refugee from a horror tale,

having been going to Blessed Martin de Porres,

where I experienced my first principal

(a title I held for close to thirty years),

a person I will never ever forget:

Had a head as large as Shaq’s!

Had a neck like a fullback!

Shoulders as wide as an elephant’s back!

Belly like a beer barrel!

Thighs like a keg!

Feet that made you step back!

And she was mean!

Sister Mary Benedict!

In one moment she’d create a sin

and then, in the next moment,

whack your knuckles to kingdom come

for committing the sin

before you realized it was a sin,

once affecting my ability to grip

for the sin of “smiling while studying”

or some equally jive-ass sin.

But Dunbar took me in

and gave me a place to shine

my behind off,

a place where I could sprout my wings

and fly

like an eagle

riding winds

just because it can,

with the spirit

of a hot riff

played by an improvisational jazz band,

fueled by our motto “Be the Best” that you can,

grabbing skills there that helped create who I am:

I was a school leader back then

and I still like to guide and direct

and educate and connect;

there was always a mike in my face

in assemblies back in those days

and I still can’t turn my back to a stage,

having acted, over the years on stage,

for a while doing standup on stage

to control feelings of rage

as a marriage died and decayed;

I once wrote a story

about a dodo,

which won a war bond for

the “Best of Show”

and I still write away everyday

and sing like I’m still in the school choir,

in the car,

on my walks,

and in the shower;

I played on the Dunbar teams

with masterful athletes

and now

my name is in the Tucson High,

University of Arizona,

and Pima County Athletic Halls of Fame

and every now and then

it comes up that I once scored 46 points for the Wildcats

in a basketball game,

a record that’s a month short of being 60 years old,

a record I’m proud to have next to my name.

But of all my acclaim

I’m most proud to have my picture

on the wall

in my high school’s

Hall of Fame

for basically what I’ve accomplished in my life,

finding a way to having a life

worth living,

giving my life

to overcoming,

thinking there’s a better world coming

over a horizon,

as I see younger generations

becoming, as they like to say “Woke.”

That gives me something Martin

wanted us to maintain:


So we must keep on keeping on

if we’re to ever truly overcome

like a tree that’s planted by the water,

never to be moved.

We’ve gotten this far in that groove.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Thomas Gayton January 23, 2020 at 10:14 pm



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