When I was a kid in the 80s we had a giant station wagon, the kind with the seat in the way back that faced rearward. Despite my propensity for car sickness, that rear facing seat was my very favorite. I’d sit back there with our lab-mix pup Ursa and listen to the radio through my very own speaker.
Most days — when my mom had her way — we’d tune into the “Golden Oldies” station. While I think she resented her era’s music bearing the name “old”, she loved singing along to Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, and Credence Clearwater Revival.
I remember a specific Sunday afternoon, sitting in the way back and coming home from a day at my grandma’s house. We didn’t have a long drive home. Just long enough to hear one or two songs.
That day we heard “Abraham, Martin, and John” by Dion.
I’m certain it wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard it. Friends, we listened to the “oldies” station a lot. But it was the first time it made me cry.
It was the first time I understood what it was about.
Not long before, I’d read a book about the Civil Rights Movement. I’d read the stories of sit-ins at lunch counters and marches in Washington D.C., about the violence of fire hoses turned on people and dogs let loose to attack.
I’d learned about the church bombing in Birmingham, Rosa Park‘s arrest, about the burning of the Freedom Riders’s bus. It was after I understood — even if in part — the price some paid for the cause of equality.
I sat in the way back, Ursa’s head resting on my leg, the harps and violins and Dion’s gentle voice playing through the speaker, letting the meaning sink in.
Now I’m the mom, driving her giant family vehicle. There’s no back-facing seat in our car, though, and we listen to the 60s station through an app on my phone.
We listened to the song again recently, just a few days before Martin Luther King day. The kids and I talked about what it meant and how things were before the Civil Rights Movement. And we talked about how it wasn’t really very long ago.
Then we talked about the work that we still need to do and how to make sure we don’t go backwards. We discussed how sometimes doing the right thing is scary, how it costs us something.
My daughter said, “But it’s worth it to be a good neighbor.”
I sit here today, letting the meaning of that sink in.