I have learned a lot in my role as a disability sports and disability rights activist. I also looked back in my life to see where my resolve comes from. I am amazed by the links to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The five-hour ride from Oak Park, IL to Detroit always seemed to take forever. I was seven years old. Too old to lay in the back window of my father’s 1972 Volvo, that was the cool spot. It was not cool. It was hot because the sun beat in against me. But, with the passenger windows rolled down, the outside air circulating through the car was all I needed to keep the ride, cool. However, now, at 7, I had to sit upright and watch my younger 5-year-old brother Chris fit in the coveted “cool” spot. I had outgrown it.
Around the thanksgiving dinner table, or the Christmas table in Detroit, my grandfather John Tyler Current, the self-made watch fixer and do anything you had to do to keep the family moving forward, fixer, would say the blessing over the meal. Then all the family, my uncles Johnny, Hank, Lester, and Gloster, along with their sisters, Isabelle, Gloria, and my mother Elloriz Dolores, and my father Rev. Donald Register, would begin passing the food around.
My grandmother, Earsey Current, would bother herself with something from the other room that she always needed to put on the table.
I loved the vegetables. I think they were from grandmother’s garden out back.
It was around that dinner table I began to hear stories of the civil rights movement. I was too young to really know what they meant at the time, but when I was older, they became crystal clear. Both in theory and in practice.
My uncle, Gloster, was at one time in his life the Director of Branches for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP. He was most notable for two historic occurrences. One was staging all the platform speakers on the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963. Yes, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous, “I have a dream” speech.
The second was more painful. As the Director of Branches for the NAACP, Uncle Gloster helped to stand up voter registration across the United States. Many of the locations were in the Jim Crow south. When civil right leader Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed by Bryan de la Beckwith’s bullet on June 12, 1963, it was recorded that Uncle Gloster was the last person to see him alive.
It was a dangerous time for black American’s. Mr. Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors having served in the United States Army and fought for the United States in World War II.
My father, I also found out later, was jailed in Hattiesburg, MS with 8 other clergy, who were protesting for the right to vote. He was the only black American with 8 other white clergy.
I do not know where the resolve comes from. The courage to act in the face of danger. The ability to move forward when you know the opposition is armed not only with guns, but also with the law on their side, which is also wielded against a minority population.
All, I know courage comes.
Dr. King stated, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
It seems like a placid quote, but in the face of the Jim Crow south where death could come by a pipe bomb thrown into a home, or an American terrorist bullet in the back, the words have profound meaning.
It wasn’t until I was 13 years old that I had my first experience which would shape my view and begin my actualization around Dr. King’s words.
I worked at the Ridgeland Common Swimming pool in Oak Park, IL as a bicycle guard. Oak Park is a west suburb located 9 miles from downtown Chicago, IL. My job was just too look after the bicycles and ensure none of them were stolen, while the patrons swam at the pool.
It was not my first job. I had a paper route and threw both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times.
I had my eye on a beautiful black Schwinn Continental 10 speed bicycle which was in the window of the Schwinn shop on Harlem avenue. I hoped to earn enough money to buy the bike by the end of the summer.
I remember when I earned the last check that put me over the top for purchasing the bike. I cashed my check and walked the three quarters of a mile from the home I grew up in on Ridgeland Ave to the Schwinn shop on Harlem and purchased the bike.
It was mine.
Remembering how I earned the money for the bike, I also purchased a heavy-duty chain and lock to go with it.
I was proud that day. I had worked and earned this purchase. There is something to be said for working and earning what you purchase with the proceeds.
I walked the bike out of the door, hopped on and began to peddle home.
When I crossed the busy intersection of Randolph Street and Ridgeland Ave, I heard the quick loud siren of one of Oak Parks police cruisers. The voice on the microphone asked me to pull the bike over.
I was just about to turn into my alley which sat halfway between Ridgeland and Cuyler Ave.
I had not even made it 10 blocks before being pulled over.
Our neighborhood was tight knit. Most of the families on the block knew each other. My brothers, Chris and Mark, and I played with the kids on the 200 block of Ridgeland. We were on the 300 block.
It was not unusual to have dinner over at a neighbor’s home. It was also not unusual to hear the voice of parents in the neighborhood calling their children home.
“Hey, you! Kid on the Bike, pull that bike over. Get off!” the police officer said forcefully from the loud speaker.
The officer stepped out of his car and began to question me on where I got the bike from. The questioning was an interrogation. It was his assumption of guilt before innocence. His assumption was that I must have disenfranchised someone for my benefit.
I distinctly remember pulling out the Schwinn receipt showing him proof of my purchase that occurred less than 15 minutes ago.
Something about my ability to work, earn and buy, was too much for this police officer’s intellect. How could his badge of “Protect and Serve,” be serving me right now?
My father worked for the Presbytery of Chicago and was down in his office when this event happened. A neighbor friend, Mr. Jones, who lived on the 200 block of Ridgeland, on the corner, was tinkering on his car in the garage. He saw and heard the entire exchange.
In a slow but authoritative walk, he came across the street and stood between the officer and me.
Mr. Jones was a black man, who had done well for himself. He owned apartment properties in Chicago and was a blue-collar working man who had found work in Chicago after moving his family up from Mississippi. He had two girls and three boys. We always played with his kids.
He calmly told the white police officer that I was in my neighborhood. He also explained how I worked all summer for that bike. He shared how I got up every morning throwing those papers and how I worked in the afternoon at Ridgeland Commons.
I never knew Mr. Jones knew about any of that.
But, like I stated, the neighborhood was tight.
Mr. Jones told the officer that everyone in the neighborhood knew when I got the money, I was going to buy that bike.
The police officer seemed satisfied. He returned my receipt to me and told me to be careful. It was not spoken with endearment. But rather if he stopped me again, the outcome might be different. It was spoken with the emphasis that I have control over you, always.
It is one thing to know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by the words he spoke, it is another to live out the words in power and then see the changes they have for the betterment of all.
I now realize that Mr. Jones put himself in harms way for me because his resolve and understanding that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is not a quote on a coffee mug. It must be put into practice at the time when courage must be extracted.
Mr. Jones intervened and acted for someone who could not act for himself. If you are reading this and thinking it is easy for a 13-year boy to talk with a police officer in a reasoning manner when you know he does not believe you and does not care to believe you, then you are delusional. We need people to have the courage to say and do what is right in defense of those who cannot speak for themselves.
The disability movement took many cues from the civil rights movement. And, while people of color were fighting to sit anywhere on the bus, people in the disability movement were fighting just to get on the bus.
The fight for equality continues on and yes justice for all is the right thing.
I am honored to be mentored by my family members but also those in the disability community who understand platforms for equality.
We see the impacts of courage come to fruition over time.
The judge who jailed my father no longer works in Mississippi. She was replaced by an African American woman judge.
Medgar Evers’ spirit lives on in that now blacks have the right to vote.
In the disability community, the activism has increased physical access.
There is still much work to be done. There are many disparities in equality. So, the cry for courage still lives on in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The time is always right to do what is right.”