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January 14, 2011

Another MLK Birthday

Roy Meachum

When Broadway hit – later a movie – “Great White Hope” premiered at Arena Stage, I was the only Washington critic wowed by the show; moving to New York’s Alvin Theatre mine were the quotes on the billboard out front.


Writing a memoir, I just passed through the years in my life reviewing for TV9. I remembered the National Capitol’s lack of integration in 1967; 13 years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools were not equal. What may have raised the ire of my newspaper colleagues was the love making on-stage of African-American James Earl Jones and alabaster-skinned Jane Alexander. Jimmy played the first black heavyweight champion of boxing, and Jane portrayed a character that represented all the white women in Jack Johnson’s life.


At the time, Washington classrooms were educating all four Meachum children. In our upper Northwest neighborhood, police stopped any black face they saw in the middle of the night. True integration did not come about until Vincent Reed took over Woodrow Wilson High School several years later. Restaurants could not discriminate; their prices did, and the fact look-alikes are more comfortable with their own kind.


Before the Ed Sherin-directed play opened in New York, Martin King Luther, Jr., was shot down in Memphis where he went to demonstrate support for the mostly black garbage workers. Staying with friends in Darien, Connecticut, at the time, I relied on television to show the rioting and burning in Washington. The New York Times provided the journalistic words to supplement what we saw; Charlie Warner and I met when we worked together in Broadcast House on a corner directly opposite Wilson High.


When I returned at the end of summer, fire-blackened hulks stared back at me from 14th Street eastward, through black neighborhoods. I was not amused that rioters ravaged the stores that served them, and in some cases their own homes – in ostensible grief for a man who advocated non-violence in all situations, no matter racists’ provocations.


Despite a years-earlier successful boycott of National Theatre’s segregation policy, Arena Stage ticket buyers were overwhelmingly white; few Blacks saw Jimmy Jones “romancing” Jane Alexander. Roger Stevens eased into the act because his National Endowment for the Arts contributed heavily to the production.


When I moved to Frederick, Lord Nickens, now 96, spearheaded the drive for African-Americans’ equality; he remained for years president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Educator William O. Lee, Jr., fought segregation in county schools and then went on to become Frederick city alderman; his passing brought tears in my heart. I still miss him.


As I said, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday arrives Saturday. County ceremonies are planned, in commemoration of the man who didn’t walk on the Mall’s Reflecting Pool. He stood in front of the Great Emancipator and shared with several hundred-thousand in the audience – and the millions who watched television – his dream for Americans of all colors.





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