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One of my most profound memories of growing up was having Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. My grandparents migrated north to New Jersey from the rural coast of North Carolina in the mid-fifties. They paved the way for my grandmother’s siblings to all eventually migrate north and settle with their families near my them at the Jersey shore.
My grandparents were proud people who sacrificed everything they had to provide passage for our family out of the segregated south into the freedoms and opportunities promised in northern communities. My sister and I were always excited to make the hour or so drive to the shore to visit my grandmother, the surviving matriarch of the family, on those Sunday afternoons after church. Although our grandfather passed away when we were very young, we felt a strong sense of pride and love that we knew had been created by both of their hard work and steady hearts and was there, waiting to touch everyone who entered into that home.
By the time we arrived at my grandmother’s house, relatives had already begun to filter into the living room, laughing and sharing stories from the past. There was a familiar sense of safety and peace that we each felt knowing that we had created something special that we would always share -- a common heritage and history that transcended blood-ties and family trees. We were the survivors of Jim Crow and the promise now of an opportunity to be who we were always meant to be, a people born with freedoms and dreams.
The smell of great soul food and the sounds of warm laughter would bring us together in anticipation of a meal at the dining room table -- the most intimate space to share. When dinner was ready to be served, we would all stand around the dining room table and hold hands and pray. All the food would be perfectly assembled on the table, as we waited quietly for one of my uncles or my father to bless the meal. In those moments, I noticed that on the wall in my grandmother’s dining room, was a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My grandmother had done what so many Black families had done who were survivors of the Jim Crow south and who had witnessed the call for America to step into the light of equality and racial justice. She joined the ranks of countless Black southerners living in the north, who felt pride and even a duty to prominently display a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in their home.
My young mind couldn’t appreciate the true meaning behind his presence at every Sunday dinner, watching over our every word and peering into our hearts with a stoic moral reminder of how far we’d come. There were plenty of framed pictures of family members freckled throughout my grandmother’s house on mantles, dressers, tables, and in photo albums that we enjoyed thumbing through after we had our fill of fellowship at the dining room table. However, that picture hanging in my grandmother’s dining room was different from the other pictures set throughout her house. The picture of Dr. King wasn’t really a picture as much as it was an image of ourselves, reminding us of how fragile freedom really is and how the sacrifices of the civil rights movement can easily be undone when we forget the faces of those who dared to embolden our self-worth and our right to dream the impossible dreams that push America to be better to its people.
Dr. King was there with us- while we sat laughing together in the living room, while praying words of thankfulness before eating, and while we gathered ourselves to leave and return to our own homes. He was there to remind us that freedom is a long march, not a fleeing spring, and that the best of him was in all of us as we marched forward into the promises that awaited us in the future. His eyes, faithful and focused, pushed us to never forget that just a generation prior to that moment, we were limited by the confines of segregation and a generation before that, we were oppressed by the yoke of slavery.
His presence, there in the middle of our family gathering each Sunday, was meant to motivate us to continue the march forward and uncover new opportunities, for ourselves and those around us. The march toward equality and the freedom to realize our greatest potential is not reserved for the privileged, but rather a blessing that we share with each other. We reject the barriers of injustice and hatred that can so easily divide us as people. As I look toward remembering Dr. King during this national day of remembrance, I am honored to have had Dr. King’s presence alive in our family gatherings, reminding me to continue the march towards freedom and justice for all.