Sweet Hope

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memphis motel room several hours after he was shot. (Photo by Steve Schapiro)

The year 1968 was one of little hope: political and social turmoil, with mass demonstrations, assassinations, riots in the streets, and a major war an ocean away. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, given at the March on Washington in August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of hewing the “stone of hope” from the mountain of despair. And then he was dead, taking the hope of millions with him, it seemed. We asked Los Angeles writer Lynell George ’84 what an essay on hope would read like today if she were to look back 50 years to 1968. Here is her reply.

About that April afternoon in 1968, I remember nothing but my mother’s sadness. Inconsolable sadness, as heavy and as foreign to me as the East Coast top coat that hung in the back of our dark hall closet. Who needed anything that heavy in this new chapter, this new coast, known for its mild days and temperament. There was supposed to be no use for this sort of sadness in this new-start city in a new-start moment in this country. At least we willed ourselves into this new way of thinking and of visualizing a hopefulness that arrives with a new page.

All these decades later, I’m trying to remember just what occurred the very moment that hope fractured. Most likely my mother made some sort of sound — a sharp intake of breath, as if an heirloom vase had toppled from a table — but I can’t distinctly recall it, don’t remember the room we were in, or if we stood or sat. I can’t remember if she fielded anxious phone calls, or if she simply told me to settle in next to her, within her quiet, while the murmuring television set was tuned louder, then louder still. I do remember a man’s face was on the screen talking, reciting a name, “Reverend Doctor King” — the name — I understood. He was a symbol of good. I was not yet 6, my brother had just turned 3, but I pieced together that there was something we had entrusted to this very brave man, something we had given him to protect, and he was marching all over the country with this load of wishes

We had had reason to be hopeful. Civil rights leaders were moving mountains of fear and hate step by step by step. Dr. King was making “good trouble”; he was the shining symbol of all of this onerous work, soaring above all the hate. Hope was a sail, carrying us forward. I began to sense, studying my mother’s face, that we’d somehow lost the sail, but not the boat.

In that anonymous room, watching my mother cry over the death of Martin Luther King Jr. — as if for a blood relation — would be my own first heartbreak.

Dr. King, of course, preached stirringly about hope, faith, justice and equity. He was mesmerizing. I had been in the presence of so much buoyed optimism on the heels of so much despair: the incidents of violence and hatred my own family had escaped from. It would take me years, perhaps decades, to more clearly (and fully) understand the ricochet effect of being on the precipice of “freedom” — of mind and body — and achieving “equality” within our daily interactions and aspirations. It would be a whole new way of being in the world. To lose not just a man but the momentum, the very heart of our symbolic hope. We dreamed his dream and consequently our own became bigger — losing him tossed us into crisis. It was frame-altering.

I grew up straddling two worlds — pre-full repeal of Jim Crow segregation and within the tumult of riots and revolution. The year 1968 would be a protracted season of loss and upheaval (the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a rising death toll in Vietnam, anti-war demonstrations, riots in Washington, D.C.). What would come of this shattered hope? It’s almost in your sights and then, like that, it vanishes.

“There is a table with a styrofoam cup, his half-unpacked suitcase with his shaving cream, folded clothes and a copy of his book ‘Strength to Love.’”

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my parents — troubled times and dreams have pushed me there. They’ve been gone more years than my mind can comprehend, but they were present to witness what they weren’t quite sure would ever happen within their lifetime: a black man ascend to the presidency, who ran on a platform of hope. But they were both gone before they could witness this backlash in the aftermath. I wonder what they might make of the territory of present day: the steady tally of police officer-involved murders of black men and women, the rollback of voting rights legislation, KKK rallies in 21st century news, the hate-speak that infiltrates the comments sections at the bottom of news stories. Would their souls, I wonder, feel as burdened as mine does daily?

How does hope flower within heartbreak? What does hope look like in life’s most catastrophic moments? Dr. King famously spoke about the struggle of “dark times” and the unexpected gift that might come from them, and that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” That would mean reminding us of our strengths — what we can pull from in the most vexing and bleakest of times.

Hope has chambered meanings. Among both its casual and formal dictionary definitions, hope is often understood as expectation and the desire for something to happen: “I hope it rains” or “I hope you get the job” or “I hope I find the person of my dreams.” But the way my family operated within the scope of hope was more open, improvisational.

When my maternal great-grandmother, Lodie, came west with her eldest daughter, what could she have been hoping for? Like so many other African Americans, my family often toggled between disasters and grace, despair and hope. My great-grandmother, I have been told, lost her vision at a young age. She was born and raised in rural Louisiana, and I have been attempting to piece together the stories about how and when she arrived in the pulsing city of New Orleans. The family endured the brutality of the South. There are family members who never speak of it, others who vanished from the census rolls (and, it seems, off the face of the earth, as no death record can be found). My family’s hope was focused just vaguely on “the West” and then more specifically California. The family moved in stages, sons and daughters first, out of the horrors of night-riding Klansmen, out of eclipsed or stagnant opportunity.

I often wondered what hope “looked” like to my great-grandmother. What was her vision of happiness? Everyone called her “Sweet,” a nickname she’d been gifted because of her disposition. She didn’t reference her sightlessness, didn’t dwell on what she didn’t have, my mother recalled. She spoke of what she was rich in: She listened to her “services” on the radio, she helped her seamstress daughters, repairing seams and stitching hems by feel and memory. She went to their Methodist church on Sunday. Her desires and expectations were shaped by these rituals of faith, being in community, being in service “to those less fortunate.”

She traveled into this big unknown, understanding California to be beautiful only through what she could intuit by the abstract promise of opportunity — the sun in her children’s voices — and simply stepped out on faith. My favorite photograph of her depicts her probably sometime in the early 1940s. Evidence in the frame tells us that she was then very far away from Louisiana. Wire-framed, smoke-dark glasses hide her ruined eyes as she stands fist-on-hip under blurry palm trees. The faintest of smiles seems to drift across her lips. She’s positioned next to a battered, road-tested sedan, making it appear as if she made the long thousands-of-miles drive herself. Triumphant. In a way this is true: She trusted the journey, and the outcome. Her fulfillment rested in the safety, love and happiness of her family. That was her compass. She wasn’t “looking” for some specific arrangement, but she opened her heart and hoped with confidence: Hope is in essence trust. My great-grandmother’s Bible assured her that God would provide. What she could not envision, those wishes she could not put into words, she found in the Book of Isaiah: the promise that “those who hope in me will never be disappointed.”

I represent my parents’ hope, their “blind trust,” their step into faith, their belief that tomorrow would be greater than today.

My brain keeps looping back for models to survive darkness, to remain buoyant as we wade through so much faith-challenging news. It has taken a toll: A poll by the American Psychological Association that was conducted in January 2017 reported that 57 percent of adult Americans “considered the current political climate to be a significant source of stress.” An old friend, who was trying — and failing — to settle on some ritual of self-care finally stumbled upon a piece of advice that she felt she could employ: “You don’t have to be hopeful about the future, sometimes it’s enough to just be curious about what’s coming.”

Curiosity is a step forward. It is active engagement, an implied “What if?” We can see our time as a moment of ruin — to fold ourselves in and give up — or as opportunity. In a March New York Times op-ed reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, Michael Eric Dyson asserted: “Dr. King saw faith as an urgent call to service, a selfless ethic of concern that, he said, quoting the Hebrew prophet Amos, made ‘justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” While we have learned to understand hope as a proverb or rallying cry — “Hope Springs Eternal” or “Keep Hope Alive” — hope is not simply a slogan, it is an action. It’s practice; it’s shaping community; it’s rethreading and rechanneling the pain.

Through the work of historians and biographers, and the recollections of intimates, we have now come to know a more complex — and, consequently, more human — Martin Luther King Jr. We know that he was worried, that he was despondent, about how much more needed to be done; he was acutely aware of the press of time. Yet each day he faced the next challenge.

Some months back, an editor phoned with an assignment. Anticipating the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, he asked if I would be up to writing about a new book that paired the words of James Baldwin with powerful photos from the civil rights movement. I had to say yes. Baldwin was my compass as a young journalist finding her way writing about inequality and identity in a public sphere. Part of my own personal therapy has been work. Journalism’s engine is curiosity: interviewing people, untangling problems, keeping a light shining in the dark.

I scrolled through the photographs — of marches, sit-ins and fire hoses turned full blast and pointed at women attired in cotton sundresses and men in pressed short sleeves — and that old feeling of unease spread through me. It hadn’t gone away — just as all of the vitriol and hate hurled at protesters and activists like Dr. King is now part of daily discourse on television and online. But the image that stopped me, the one I couldn’t scroll beyond, was by photographer Steve Schapiro: a still life, trenchant in its simplicity. It features Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, just hours after his murder. There is a table with a Styrofoam cup, his half-unpacked suitcase with his shaving cream, folded clothes and a copy of his book “Strength to Love.” A television is tuned to the news — the visage of a sober-eyed anchorman with Dr. King’s image over his shoulder, floating. What has remained with me is King’s suitcase. He may have felt embattled, despondent and, at moments, as if he were searching for hope. But he’d packed his clothes, his shaving cream, his book — each a totem, each meant to be used the next day and the next: one step, next step.

I represent my parents’ hope, their “blind trust,” their step into faith, their belief that tomorrow would be greater than today. We might have lost momentum, but we would stay afloat. In the darkest days, they trusted in a future they couldn’t see but kept the conviction that we, like they, would participate and help shape the future, through generational faith — move Dr. King’s “stone of hope” forward.

What this switchback on our long road forward has made me realize is that there is — and will always be — “mountaintops” to aim for, injustice to untangle, gains to protect. This darkness has trained our vision. It has made us look squarely at all the work that is yet-to-be finished: the heavy bitterness and hate that had been secreted into a closet’s dark corner. We don’t just check off the task, dust off our hands and move on; it takes constant vigilant effort.

Hope is not passive; it’s not idle. A still-grieving Baldwin wrote in a 1972 Esquire magazine essay about the weight of the absence of his compatriot and dear friend, Dr. King: “Perhaps even more than the death itself [but] the manner of death” revealed the country for what it was — in terrible disarray, if not broken. “The marchers and petitioners” who put their faith — their hope — in a “blank, vast generality” of the United States, Baldwin reflected, were let down. “[They] were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located — i.e., there are no American people yet,” he cautioned. “Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands not of others, but of oneself.”

Lynell George is an L.A.-based journalist and essayist and a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine. Her new book is “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame.” George won a Grammy Award in January 2018 for her liner notes that accompanied the six-CD set “Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings.” A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, she is a columnist for KCET’s “Artbound.” George’s essay on envy, in a feature on the Seven Deadly Sins, appeared in our summer 2017 issue. Follow her on Twitter @LynellGeorge.

This essay was named among the Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2018 in “The Best American Essays 2019” by Robert Atwan, series editor, and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 2019).