Jackson Faw

Jackson Faw and Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver at the MLK Day Celebration at Mount Zion AME Church in Hillsborough. 

Throughout my adult life, before a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a federal holiday in 1983, it’s been a sacred day for me, perhaps more so than any other holiday. I don’t know why.

Someone who doesn’t know me would say it’s compensation for the guilt of a white Southern man, the mirror of the man who murdered Dr. King and the men who laughed about and cheered his slaying in diners across Dixie the day it happened. Those were people in my life, white people in North Carolina. I was eight years old. 

Yes, I feel guilt for the color of my skin and the place I was born and the people I’m with every day whose great-grandparents were brought to America in the bottoms of ships.

But the truth for me, the importance of this day, is injustice, the driving force of my being.

“Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in a Memphis sky. Free at last! They took your life—they could not take your pride…” I cry every time I listen to (U2’s) Bono sing these words.

I marched with my church Central Presbyterian in Atlanta every year on MLK Day, with hundreds of people in a celebration that ended at Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King preached, and where the first black man to become a US Senator in the slaveholding state of Georgia, Reverend Raphael Warnock, is now behind the pulpit.

This Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I was honored to sing in the men’s choir at Mount Zion Church in Hillsborough.

The Reverend John Dawkins described to us his courage and perseverance in opening a McDonald’s restaurant in Philadelphia 40 years ago. On the day the restaurant was to change ownership to a black High School AP Chemistry teacher, when the clock struck noon, in the presence of his family and friends, the shift manager turned and walked out, followed by the entire rest of the staff of the restaurant. Rev. Dawkins turned to his wife, and then his children. “We have to run the restaurant now. Let’s get to it,” and his family helped him keep the restaurant open.

It’s hard to describe being in a black church. There’s a love that’s palpable, an energy shared and passed, invisibly, from person to person. You echo the words of the preacher, or add your own, with love given and received by everyone, without a hint of scorn or judgement.

I didn’t know the words or melody of the songs, but beside me, Leon just leaned over, swaying into me, smiling and mouthing the words, and, intrinsically, I knew the songs, and sang them confidently with joy, “Lift every voice and sing!”

Ten years or so ago I saw Al Green at Chastain Park in Atlanta, one of my favorite singers since I was a teenager. But by then, he was The Reverend Al Green. Rev. Al Green started with his hits, “Let’s Stay Together,” “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” but by the time I’d worked my way down to the middle of the sweating tide of people in the outdoor, star-covered cathedral on that summer night in Georgia, people were shouting and passing out in the passion of the Gospel hymns. I was overcome in a trance that night, as real as being in a tide in the ocean.

I can’t say exactly the same thing happened on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the Mount Zion AME Church in Hillsborough, but while I was singing in the middle of so much love, the hairs on my arm were standing up.

Jackson Faw lives in Hillsborough.